To the editor:
It was 14 years ago this summer that my mother reluctantly disclosed to us the presence of a large, dark brown mass on her chest. It was a malignant melanoma which would quickly spread to her brain and take her life, only a few months later. What puzzled me at the time was that this cancerous growth was on a part of her body normally covered by her clothing, NOT exposed to the sun. Now, in the midst of a very warm summer, we all face this dilemma: Do we avoid the sun by covering up with clothing and sunscreen, or do we expose our skin to the sun and accept its many health-giving benefits along with some risk of harm?
Here are the recommendations of Professor Hartmut Glossman of the University of Innsbruck, from his recently published paper in the medical journal Gerontology (Dec. 22, 2011). In brief, he recommends that the elderly expose themselves to moderate, regular sun exposure as often as possible during seasons when the sun is high in the sky. He bases his recommendation on numerous studies showing that sun exposure extends life and helps prevent numerous diseases. In the winter and early spring, he recommends vitamin D supplementation at (our) northern latitudes. He reports that sunshine is associated with less "multiple sclerosis, bronchial asthma, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, colon cancer, hypertension, type 1 and 2 diabetes, cardiovascular events, frailty, muscle weakness, pelvic floor disease, anemia, depression and more." (I would also add breast and colon cancer to the list.)
He recommends the elderly avoid sunburns, cover their head and face with a brimmed hat, applying sunscreen to their face and hands but otherwise expose as much skin as possible to sunlight. He dismisses the risk of malignant melanoma, pointing out that, "There is no evidence that the aging population is in danger of malignant melanoma from moderate (regular) sun exposure, OR that sunscreen protects against malignant melanoma." He points out that the people from Greece, Italy, and Spain disappear to the beach every August but the incidence of malignant melanoma in those countries is vastly lower than in cloudy Britain.
Glossman does NOT believe that the benefits of the sun can be replaced with a pill, although in northerly regions where little sun is available during winter and spring, supplementation is advised.
Bottom line, especially for us old folks? Get moderate, REGULAR sun exposure as often as you can during the summer when the sun is high. Use a hat plus sunscreen to cover face and hands, but otherwise expose as much sun as you can. In winter and spring, supplement with vitamin D capsules. They're cheap, safe and help keep you healthy!
Charles Reinert ND, PhD