Vitamin D Deficiency: The Overlooked Risk Factor for Seniors

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Some vitamins get all the attention.

Eat your carrots, get plenty of vitamin A and your eyesight will be strengthened. An orange will deliver more than a day's worth of vitamin C, which helps keep your skin tight and is believed to help boost your immune system. And most people have heard about the power of all of the B-vitamins and their positive effects on brain function, nerve vitality and overall health.

But what about vitamin D?

Sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is often overlooked in the hierarchy of healthy vitamin discussions--but it shouldn't be, especially for seniors. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is a serious problem for older adults across the country. Here's why:

It's not just about rickets anymore

Between 1900 and 1930, vitamin D deficiency was a big problem in the United States and Europe. In fact, it's estimated that about 85 percent of children living in industrialized cities were vitamin D deficient. This led to an epidemic of rickets, a disease that causes calcification and softening of bones and often caused bowlegs.

Luckily, the U.S. government made the decision to start fortifying milk and infant formula with vitamin D, doing away with the rickets epidemic. These days, it's seniors who are at greater risk due to vitamin D deficiency.

Because seniors typically drink less milk, spend fewer hours outside and probably aren't drinking a lot of baby formula, they often don't get all the vitamin D they need. According to a study published by the International Society For Clinical Densitometry, most adults have vitamin D deficiency. What’s more, the study found that the condition is "extremely prevalent" among seniors.

“Vitamin D is important for bone and muscle development, function and preservation. For this reason, it is a vital component in the maintenance of bone strength and in the prevention of falls and osteoporotic fractures in this older population,” says Rene Ficek, Registered Dietitian and Lead Nutrition Expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. “Additionally, vitamin D deficiency seems to be either a contributing factor, or even possibly a cause, of many chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure, just to name a few.”

Seniors who don't get enough vitamin D may be putting themselves at risk for an array of health problems, including:

  • Low bone density
  • Bone pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Overall fragility
  • Depression
  • Frequent colds and viruses

Carolyn Suerth Hudson, Registered and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist at Nutritional Weight and Wellness in Eden Prairie, Minn., also points to studies that suggest a link between keeping vitamin D levels in the optimal range and lower incidences of many chronic illnesses.

“Vitamin D is one of those miracle vitamins that we really haven’t learned everything we need to learn about yet,” says Suerth Hudson, Registered and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist at Nutritional Weight and Wellness in Eden Prairie, Minn.

So while rickets is no longer a major problem, many seniors today are suffering a number of other adverse effects of vitamin D deficiency.

What Seniors Can Do

Yes, vitamin D deficiency can have serious consequences. But the good news is that it’s a relatively easy condition to treat.

Hudson recommends that seniors have their vitamin D levels checked at their next doctor’s appointment. This will help determine whether you’re vitamin D deficient. From there, your doctor can advise how much vitamin D you should aim for each day.

Conventional wisdom dictates that simply getting outside and taking in more sunshine is the best way to get the recommended amount of vitamin D. However, this may not be practical for seniors with other medical conditions or those living in northern climates. Plus, too much exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer. That's why the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends seniors rely less on the sun and more on their diets to get the vitamin D they need.

One way to get more vitamin D is through your diet. Some good food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon and tuna, cod liver oil, beef liver, egg yolks, and cheeses, which, like milk, are fortified with vitamin D. However, most of these foods don’t come close to the recommended amounts of vitamin D, especially for those who are deficient in the vitamin. That’s why it’s more realistic for most people to get their vitamin D via supplements, says Hudson. This treatment option has been shown to normalize the vitamin D levels in older adults and prevent or lower the effects of deficiency.

Hudson says she’s seen numerous cases where older adults in her care experienced better health outcomes, and oftentimes better moods and higher energy, after taking the recommended amount of vitamin D.

The nutritionist recommends that seniors ask themselves the following questions.

  • Do I have low moods?
  • Do I have carbohydrate cravings?
  • Am I low on energy?
  • Do I have muscle or bone pain?
  • Am I frequently sick with cold or flu?
  • Do I show signs of heart disease or other autoimmune conditions?

If the answers are often “yes,” it could mean you have a vitamin D deficiency, and that it’s time to get your vitamin D levels checked.

Laura Dixon

As Caring's Editorial Manager, Laura writes and edits articles about important issues for family caregivers and seniors. See full bio