The Importance of Vitamin D for Seniors
Vitamin D is essential for maintaining many aspects of good health. Research shows that vitamin D promotes strong bones, and it also may help prevent certain types of cancer, mood disorders, cognitive impairments, diabetes and autoimmune diseases.
Recent evidence also points to the vitamin playing a protective role against falls in older people.
People age 70 and older often have insufficient levels of vitamin D. Some reasons for the shortfall include:
- Changes in aging skin lower the body’s ability to make vitamin D.
- Older people may stay indoors more often or otherwise avoid the sun.
- Older adults may eat fewer vitamin-D-rich foods.
- Cognitive issues may make cause them to forget to take vitamin D supplements.
- The intestines may not absorb vitamin D as well as they used to.
What is Vitamin D?
The body produces vitamin D when the skin comes into contact with UV rays from the sun. You can also find vitamin D in a few foods where it occurs naturally. Fish, some fish oils and egg yolks are natural sources of “the sunshine vitamin.” Also, some dairy and grain products are fortified with vitamin D.
Sunblock shields the skin from the sun’s UV rays, so if you wear sunblock or sunscreen, your skin won’t be activated to produce vitamin D. However, since skin cancer is more dangerous than a vitamin D deficiency, you should continue to wear sunscreen every day, even in winter. You only need a few minutes of sun exposure each day— as few as five minutes— to produce the vitamin D your body needs. If you wear sunscreen on your face but not on your neck or hands, you’ll have enough skin exposure for vitamin D synthesis.
How to Know if You Have a Vitamin D Deficiency
A vitamin D deficiency usually doesn’t cause any clearly identifiable symptoms. Sometimes there may be signs of a low mood, weakened immune functioning and excessive tiredness. But the only way to be sure that you have a deficiency is through a blood test for vitamin D.
If you find out you’re deficient in it, follow your doctor’s instructions on how much to take in supplement form. If you’re severely low, you might begin with a dose of about 1000 IUs per day, and then adjust from there based on future blood levels. Vitamin D toxicity is rare, but persons with health problems, such as liver or kidney disease, may be more at risk of ill-effects from too much vitamin D.
Who Should Take a Vitamin D Supplement?
Most experts recommend taking vitamin D supplements if you live in the northern part of the country or spend the majority of your time inside and away from natural sunlight. If you’re an older person aged 71 and older who is at risk of falls, the U.S. Preventative Service Task Force recommends taking a supplement of 800 IUs of vitamin D every day. That amount has been associated with a 17 percent decrease in falls.
Vitamin D helps the body to use calcium efficiently to maintain healthy bones. Calcium also is required for muscle contraction. The higher your levels of vitamin D, the more muscle mass you’re likely to have. Strong muscles help with balance and fall prevention.
Your skin color also plays a role in your likelihood to develop a vitamin D deficiency. Dark pigmentation acts as a natural sunscreen, preventing UV rays from triggering vitamin D synthesis. African-Americans are most likely to have insufficient levels of vitamin D, followed by Mexican-Americans and then Caucasians. If you have dark skin, it’s more likely you need to supplement with vitamin D.
If you think you’re at risk of a vitamin D deficiency, talk to your doctor. As a general rule, don’t take more than 4,000 IUs of vitamin D daily without a doctor’s supervision.