The Sun: Your Friend or Your Foe?

It’s spring and summer is right around the corner. Time to think about bright sun and long days.

If you’re like me, the stay-away-from-the-sun message has begun to sink in. If you’re going outside for a walk, gardening, taking a bike ride, or even jumping in the pool for a swim, you put on sunscreen and whatever else you may need to prevent a sunburn and skin cancer.

But, it looks like you shouldn’t be quite so sun-shy. Like so many things pertaining to health, it turns out it’s complicated.

A  study published March 21 in the Journal of Internal Medicine  (subscription or purchase required) showed that people who avoid the sun and its rays don’t live as long as do those with higher amounts of sun exposure. Avoiding the sun “is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking,” according to the study authors. 

Avoiding the sun is a new risk factor, after smoking, being overweight and being inactive, according to the researchers. This goes against the commonly held belief that if you sunbathe, you’re crazy.

The research team, led by Pelle Lindqvist, MD, of Karolinska University Hospital in Huddinge, Sweden, found that women who had more sun exposure were at lower risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and pulmonary diseases than were those who avoided the sun.

What’s more, the study found that the health benefits increased with the amount of sun exposure.

But what about skin cancer? The authors reported that they did find an increased risk for skin cancer associated with higher sun exposure, “but the skin cancer that occurred in those exposing themselves to the sun had a better prognosis.”

The study looked at sun exposure as a risk factor for death in almost 30,000 women with no history of malignant cancer, followed over a 20-year period. The women in the study had been recruited in the early 1990’s when they were 25 to 64 years old. Factors such as marital status, education level, smoking, alcohol consumption and the number of children the women had had were noted. A limitation of the study was the fact that the researchers did not include other life style habits or exercise data.

Even smokers who were about 60 years of age who had the most intense sum exposure had a two-year longer life expectancy during the study period than did smokers who avoided the sun.

Why might this be? The researchers don’t know whether the positive effect of sun exposure is caused by  vitamin D, another mechanism related to ultraviolet radiation, or something else.

What should you do? Talk with your physician about your particular needs. As for me, I’m going to enjoy 10 to 20 minutes of pure sunshine most days, but use sunscreen when I’m out for longer periods.



About Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN

I'm an experienced healthcare and science editor and journalist. But most of all, I'm a registered nurse with many years of experience working in hospitals. I've learned what patients and families need first hand. But I've also worked to improve hospitals and educate people about their health. I'm committed to helping people take charge of their health care and get what they need from a complex and often discouraging healthcare system.
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