Vitamin D is important as it ensures that our bodies function well, keeps our bones strong, and may minimize the effects of some cancers. Maintaining proper levels of vitamin D is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle at every age, however, it’s especially significant for older adults, who are more at risk of fall-related injuries. Without vitamin D, our bodies are unable to absorb calcium, which is the primary component of bone.
Early in life, we tend to spend more time outdoors, and while we are programmed to protect our bodies from the sun, as we age the need for the sun increases. Our bodies make vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight, however, many older adults don’t always get regular sun exposure and may have difficulties absorbing vitamin D. Although many of us are aware of the importance of vitamin D for bone health, there are many other ways vitamin D protects our bodies that are often overlooked.
Traditionally, people recognize vitamin D for its role in protecting our bones. However, researchers are beginning to accumulate more data that suggests vitamin D does much more than it’s credited. Here are some of the important functions that vitamin D plays in the body:
• Bone health and calcium absorption. Vitamin D is best known for its ability to keep bones healthy by increasing the absorption of calcium. Low levels of vitamin D can significantly reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium, increasing the risk of bone fractures. Besides, weak bones can lead to loss of bone density and osteoporosis.
• Working with parathyroid glands. Parathyroid glands help balance calcium in the body by communicating with the kidneys, gut, and skeleton. When there is sufficient vitamin D enabling the absorption of calcium, extra dietary calcium is put to use in other areas of the body. However, if there is a shortage of calcium being absorbed or if vitamin D is low, the parathyroid glands will take calcium from the skeleton to maintain proper levels of calcium in the blood.
• Prevents cancer. Research suggests that vitamin D can help prevent certain cancers. Some data suggests that many cells in the body can activate vitamin D, helping to regulate cellular growth. In return, this can help reduce the risk of cancers like colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
• Reduces the risk of cognitive decline. Older adults are more at risk of developing illnesses that can result in cognitive decline. Recent studies have suggested that low vitamin D levels in older adults are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline.
It’s not uncommon for older adults to have low levels of vitamin D, especially since many lack direct exposure to sunlight. In fact, during the shorter summer months, people who live at certain latitudes don’t have enough exposure to UVB energy to make all the vitamin D they need. Many older adults can have difficulty absorbing vitamin D as a result of interactions with certain medications or due to hereditary diseases, such as familial hypophosphatemia.
Lack of vitamin D can be difficult to identify, especially in adults. Signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can look like fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, muscle aches, mood changes, and depression. While there are many different causes of vitamin D deficiency, here are a few of the most common causes in older adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
• Age. As we age, our bodies naturally reduce vitamin D production in the skin. Researchers have found that older adults produce 50% less vitamin D when compared to younger individuals.
• Mobility. It’s not uncommon for older adults to lose physical mobility as they age. Those who are non-ambulatory might find it difficult to get direct sun exposure as often as needed.
• Skin color. Those with darker skin do not necessarily lose the ability to produce vitamin D. According to a study performed on Maasai herders, they were producing vitamin D at the same level as adults taking 3,000-5,000 units per day.
• Chronic illnesses. Diseases like Cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease make it difficult for the intestines to absorb vitamin D.
• Weight loss surgeries. These surgeries can make it difficult to consume and absorb sufficient amounts of nutrients and vitamins needed for our bodies to function properly. Instead, those who have undergone weight-loss surgeries may need to consume supplements to ensure their bodies are absorbing enough vitamin D.
• Obesity. Those with a body mass index greater than 30 are more at risk of testing at low levels for vitamin D. Research suggests that fat cells store vitamin D instead of releasing it throughout the body.
• Kidney and liver diseases. These diseases make it difficult for the body to transform vitamin D into a usable form. This can cause a vitamin D deficiency that will need to be monitored.
When the body detects low levels of vitamin D, it has trouble absorbing calcium, which is critical for bone health. Instead of malfunctioning, the body takes calcium that’s stored in the bones. If this continues to go unaddressed, it can increase the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures, which older adults are already at an increased risk of developing.
Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to other medical problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and autoimmune conditions. Those who have low levels of vitamin D were 70% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Adults ages 70 and below require 600 IU of vitamin D, while adults over the age of 70 require 800 IU. While getting enough vitamin D is needed to maintain proper body functions, too much can have an adverse effect.
Vitamin D comes primarily from direct exposure to sunlight. However, we can also consume vitamin D through food sources. While most foods aren’t high in vitamin D, there are some fortified foods, like milk, cereal, and orange juice that have higher amounts of vitamin D. You can also get vitamin D from fatty fishes like salmon and tuna, mushrooms, and egg yolks.
If this isn’t enough, vitamin D supplements can be a better option. It’s always important to consult your doctor before making changes to your diet or adding a dietary supplement, especially because too much vitamin D can be harmful to your health.
Taking care of our bodies can feel like a full-time job. At Maplewood Senior Living, our talented staff prioritizes the health needs of all residents. Our team of chefs at each community prepares meals specifically designed to meet the needs of older adults. Maplewood’s Nutritionist, Maria Gleason, works with our culinary teams and residents to create meals that are tasty and healthy. “We make sure our menus incorporate foods that are rich in Vitamin D such as salmon, eggs, cheeses, and fortified milk and orange juice.” At Maplewood Senior Living, your health is a top priority. Our culinary teams work hard to make sure our residents are eating well as they age and keep a close eye on them to make sure they are getting all the right nutrients they need. Read about our dining philosophy HERE.
If you’re interested in learning more about our special offerings or scheduling a tour, please contact us.
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