Would you like to lower your odds of dying by about 20 percent? Then get plenty of vitamin K. That’s the recent and remarkable finding from a team of scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. In their analysis of health data from more than 4,000 Americans ages 54 to 76, they found that those with the lowest level of vitamin K were 19 percent more likely to die during the 13 years of the study.
Vitamin K was discovered in 1929 by European scientists who realized it played a crucial role in blood clotting or coagulation—koagulation in German, hence “vitamin K.” Since then, researchers have discovered a growing number of ways that vitamin K can protect you against the chronic diseases of aging, and against dying from them. Here’s what the latest science shows.
- Chronic inflammation. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is a driving force in many diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin K blocks the production of inflammatory components in the immune system called cytokines. In a paper published in Current Nutrition Reports, researchers cite several studies that link higher dietary intake of vitamin K to lower levels of several inflammatory biomarkers.
- Osteoporosis. Vitamin K is essential for your body to form osteocalcin, a protein that binds calcium to bone, increasing bone mineral content and ensuring bone strength. In a review published in the journal Medicine, scientists analyzed five studies (involving more than 80,000 people) on vitamin K and fractures. They found that those with the highest intake of the vitamin were 24 percent less likely to break a bone. Fractures can be deadly in seniors: A hip fracture doubles the risk of dying in older women and triples it in older men. Even minor fractures, like breaking a wrist, are linked to a higher risk of dying within five years.
- Atherosclerosis. Vitamin K activates matrix Gla, a protein that keeps calcium away from your arteries—helping prevent atherosclerosis, the buildup of calcified plaques that can block an artery and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
- Cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke). In a 10-year study published in BMJ Open in 2020, Norwegian scientists analyzed data from nearly 3,000 people and found that those with the highest dietary intake of vitamin K2 were 48 percent less likely to develop heart disease. Another study found that every 10-microgram (mcg) increase in the intake of dietary vitamin K2 lowered the risk of heart disease by 9 percent. Menopausal women who took 180 mcg of vitamin K2 for three years had a decrease in arterial stiffness, a cause of high blood pressure and a risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
- Osteoarthritis. Studies show that people with low blood levels of vitamin K are 1.5 to 2.6 times more likely to develop osteoarthritis, a disease that causes pain, stiffness, and decreased range of motion. It is the most common cause of disability in the United States.
- Type 2 diabetes. In another study from the Vitamin K Lab at Tufts University, researchers found that older men who received vitamin K supplements had a slower progression in the development of insulin resistance—cellular resistance to the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels—than men who didn’t take the vitamin. Insulin resistance is a leading risk factor for prediabetes and diabetes. And diabetes doubles the risk of heart attack, increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (which is sometimes called “type 3 diabetes”), and can cause nerve damage, vision loss, and kidney damage.
- Chronic kidney disease (CKD). Approximately 37 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, which causes high blood pressure, and most of them develop fatal heart disease. Research shows that CKD patients have very high rates of vitamin K deficiency.
- Cognitive decline. Vitamin K also appears to help keep brain cells alive as we age. A study published in the Frontiers of Neurology shows that in people ages 65 and older, low dietary intake of vitamin K is linked to poor cognitive performance. Another study, published in the Journal of the American Dietary Association, shows that early-stage Alzheimer’s patients consume less vitamin K than “cognitively intact” older adults.
- Emphysema. A study published in Frontiers in Nutrition in 2020 shows that people who consume adequate vitamin K have a 39 percent lower risk of emphysema, a progressive disease that causes shortness of breath, persistent cough, and fatigue.
Boost your vitamin K
Vitamin K is a family of compounds that includes phylloquinone (vitamin K1) and menaquinone (vitamin K2). Vitamin K2 comprises 10 subtypes, the most biologically active of which is menaquinone 7 (MK7).
Vitamin K1 is mainly found in green vegetables, such as kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green beans, and green peas. It’s also found in vegetable oils, soybean oil, and olive oil. Vitamin K2 is found in fermented foods such as yogurt, hard cheeses, sauerkraut, and kimchi. (The best source is natto, or fermented soybeans.) It’s also generally found in fullfat dairy products. Try to get a daily serving of food from each group. You can also supplement your diet with 90 to 120 micrograms (mcg) of MK7.