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July 27, 2021
All people need vitamin D. But the National Institutes of Health has determined adults ages 71 and older have the greatest requirement — 20 mcg or 800 IU each day. Here’s why: Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption, one of the main building blocks for strong bones. Together with calcium, vitamin D helps protect against developing osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens the bones and makes them more likely to break. The body needs the benefits of vitamin D for other functions too. Muscles need it to move, and nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and the body. The immune system needs vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses.
Here are eight major benefits of vitamin D for seniors, what a vitamin D deficiency could mean for senior health, and the best ways to get more of it in your diet.
Vitamin D earns its bone-building powers by promoting the absorption of calcium in the gut, which allows for bone mineralization. Basically, we need vitamin D for bone growth and to prevent bones from becoming brittle, and calcium wouldn’t be able to do its job without vitamin D. For seniors especially, these vitamin D benefits are essential in the prevention of osteoporosis, a disease resulting in reduced bone density.
Along with its bone-building abilities, vitamin D is also influential in strengthening muscles. Not having enough vitamin D in the body can increase the risk of weak muscles, which, for older adults, can affect balance and increase the risk of falling.
Vitamin D supports the immune system by fighting off harmful bacteria and viruses and preventing infection, including helping to fight off such viral infections as influenza and the coronavirus. It’s been found that vitamin D reduces the risk of acute respiratory infection with either daily or weekly vitamin D supplementation, particularly in those who are deficient in it.
Because vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, it plays a crucial role in lowering the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. Researchers hypothesize that due to its ability to function as an anti-inflammatory agent and stimulate the production of antimicrobial peptides, as well as its effect on bone metabolism, vitamin D helps support healthy gums and teeth.
Though still under study, investigators believe vitamin D may be helpful for preventing both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Early findings show that while vitamin D on its own doesn’t lower the risk of an overabundance of sugar in the blood, a combined daily intake of more than 1,200 mg of calcium and more than 800 IU of vitamin D may effectively lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Various studies suggest vitamin D may play a role in treatment of high blood pressure, which is one of the markers of cardiovascular disease. Researchers believe even a short-term vitamin D deficiency may directly raise blood pressure and promote organ damage. They feel that due to the high correlation between vitamin D and hypertension, vitamin D supplementation therapy may be a new insight in the treatment of hypertension.
Researchers are seeing increasing evidence that vitamin D supplementation may lead to improved outcomes in colorectal, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers. In studies using mice, vitamin D has been found to slow the development of cancer cells and tumors by promoting cellular differentiation, decreasing cancer cell growth, stimulating cell death, and reducing tumor blood vessel formation.
Because obesity is a known risk factor for low vitamin D levels, supplementing vitamin D may help with weight loss. One study included 400 overweight and obese people with vitamin D deficiency who were put on a low-calorie diet and then divided into three groups. One group took no vitamin D supplements, while the two other groups took either 25,000 international units (IU) or 100,000 IU of vitamin D per month. After six months, participants in both vitamin D supplementation groups had lost more weight and had greater reductions in their waistlines than those who hadn’t taken the supplements.
Vitamin D deficiency, known as hypovitaminosis D, is an increasingly common condition among people of all ages, but older adults are at increased risk. Various factors can play a role in vitamin D deficiencies in seniors. Because many seniors spend much of their time indoors, older adults get minimal exposure to natural sunlight. And as the skin thins with age, vitamin D synthesis becomes less efficient. Reduced appetite and impaired absorption of nutrients further compound this problem. The signs of low vitamin D are often subtle and can be confused with other health conditions in seniors, but be alert for the development of one or more of these signs.
In aging adults, vitamin D deficiency is strongly linked to muscle weakness, which can manifest in different ways. In general, seniors tend to feel a heaviness in their legs and have difficulty standing up and climbing stairs. The combination of weakened muscles and bones caused by low vitamin D levels has been associated with an increased risk of falls and fractures.
Since vitamin D converts into the active hormone calcitriol, it functions differently within the body than other vitamins. It’s believed to help regulate immune function and the release of neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) that influence moods. Studies have shown low vitamin D levels may be associated with mental health disorders like seasonal affective disorder (SAD), schizophrenia and depression. Seniors who feel depressed and tired all the time may actually be deficient in vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels may also contribute to cognitive decline and a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Vitamin D appears to play an important role in regulating appetite and body weight as well. Research has shown that lower levels of vitamin D are associated with obesity, whereas increased vitamin D levels have been associated with reductions in body fat. It’s believed vitamin D controls the levels of leptin in the body — another hormone that inhibits hunger and reduces fat storage. When a senior is deficient in vitamin D, these signals to the brain get disrupted, and the body doesn’t know when to stop eating. This can make people overeat and gain weight.
Many older adults who are tired all the time might not realize they may have a nutritional deficiency. Low vitamin D levels may also cause widespread pain in areas like the shoulders, pelvis, rib cage and lower back, which can leave a senior feeling drained. Having stiff joints and constant fatigue might indicate a need to boost their vitamin D intake (especially if they don’t go outside much or eat many fortified foods).
Studies have shown low vitamin D levels may contribute to the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a condition characterized by chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. IBD is split into two main types: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. To make matters worse, bowel diseases can interfere with the way the intestines absorb dietary fat. Since vitamin D is fat soluble, GI conditions can exacerbate nutritional deficiencies.
Do you have a vitamin D deficiency? The way to find out is to consult your doctor, who’ll test to see whether your blood vitamin D level is within the adequate range. This will determine whether a supplement is needed and in what dosage. But there are other ways to up your daily dosage of vitamin D. Getting 20 minutes or so of sunlight several times a week is a good way to start. But you’ll still need to wear sunscreen whenever your skin is exposed to UV light.
Aside from the sun, you can get extra vitamin D through certain foods, like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, as well as mushrooms. Milk, orange juice, yogurt and breakfast cereals can also be fortified with vitamin D. You can also take a supplement in the form of vitamin D3 if your doctor thinks it’s necessary. Many doctors now consider a daily dose of 1,000-2,000 IU of D3 to be safe for most adults. Because vitamin is fat soluble, it’s best taken with the largest meal of the day.
Vitamin D is an extremely important nutrient that the body needs to function properly, and insufficiencies may trigger severe health problems. The combination of symptoms caused by low vitamin D, such as fatigue, pain and depression, can easily be misdiagnosed or written off as inevitable side effects of aging. Be sure to make a doctor’s appointment if you notice any of the above symptoms in your loved one. A simple blood test and recommendation for lifestyle changes or an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement can help seniors feel better fast.
A healthy, nutritious diet and everyday wellness are woven into the culture of Episcopal Senior Life communities. Explore all our living options by scheduling your personal tour of an Episcopal Senior Life community near you. You can contact us here anytime.