We know how important it is to eat a healthy diet. Your body uses macronutrients, mainly carbohydrates and fat, as fuel and taps into the other macronutrient, protein, to repair tissues. But, none of this could happen without the help of a support team, mainly vitamins, and minerals that act as cofactors. Vitamins partner up with enzymes to make reactions run. As such, they’re essential to life and health, since, without them, enzymes can’t function properly. You might already be familiar with some vitamin deficiency diseases such as scurvy, caused by a deficiency in vitamin C.
We know that the preferred way to get vitamins is through a healthy diet. A varied diet of whole foods can provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function. However, vitamin requirements vary with age. For example, children have differing requirements for certain vitamins than adults do. Another question is does the requirement for certain vitamins change as you enter the second half of life, particularly in the latter years of life? Let’s take a closer look at whether the need for particular vitamins change as we get older.
Vitamin D is a vitamin that a surprising number of people are deficient in, and deficiency becomes more common with age. Why are older people at higher risk? The elderly typically get less exposure to sunlight, the leading source of vitamin D. That’s important because your skin converts vitamin D precursors to pre-vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. This pre-vitamin D is then activated by the liver and kidneys. Changes in skin thickness can make it harder for older people to synthesize vitamin D. Intestinal absorption of vitamin D from food sources may also be reduced in older folks.
Why is vitamin D so important? A low vitamin D level can cause a variety of problems, including muscle weakness, reduced functionality, and may boost the risk for a number of health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and some forms of cancer. So, vitamin D deficiency is one to watch out for. The best way to do that is to get a vitamin D level checked to make sure you’re in range, especially if you have other risk factors for vitamin D deficiency. Risk factors include obesity, darkly pigmented skin. Little exposure to sunlight, living in a northern latitude and having a health problem that impacts vitamin absorption are other factors that elevate the risk.
Vitamin B12 deficiency becomes more common with age too and can have devastating consequences. This B-vitamin is important for building healthy red blood cells but also for brain and nerve health. Plus, low vitamin B12 is linked to potentially permanent nerve damage as well as brain atrophy. Although you can become deficient in vitamin B12 at any age, it’s more common in older people due to reduced production of stomach acid. Low stomach acid and lack of a factor called intrinsic factor greatly reduce absorption of vitamin B12. Vegans are also at higher risk as vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in meat and dairy. In the elderly, diagnosing vitamin B12 deficiency and correcting it quickly is vital since the neurological symptoms can mimic those of Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies show that up to a third of the population doesn’t get enough dietary magnesium – and that’s not conducive to good health. You need adequate magnesium for heart, skeletal muscle, and blood vessel function. No wonder! Magnesium is a co-factor used in making ATP, the energy currency that drives all muscle contraction. Low levels of magnesium are linked with a higher risk of age-related health problems, including type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. So, to say it’s important is an understatement. Plus, factors like stress and aging boost the requirement for magnesium.
It’s preferable to get magnesium from dietary sources, rather than supplements since magnesium supplements can trigger diarrhea. Good magnesium sources include leafy greens, seeds, nuts, beans, whole grains, and avocados. How do you know if you’re getting enough? Blood tests for determining magnesium deficiency aren’t necessarily accurate since only about 1% of magnesium circulates in the blood. Most is stored in your bones and soft tissues. A better test is to check the magnesium level in your red blood cells. Ask your physician about this.
We think of calcium as being a mineral for bone health, but it plays a number of roles in the human body Although 99% of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones, the other 1% is vitally important for life and must be maintained within normal limits. Could your body use more?
Older people may need more dietary calcium than younger folks for several reasons. For one, lactose intolerance becomes more common with age, making it harder to consume dairy products, a major source of calcium. Fortunately, calcium is abundant in other foods as well, especially tofu and green, leafy vegetables. Plus, certain medications can reduce calcium absorption, including some medications used to treat acid reflux. Ask your physician whether you’re taking a medication that affects calcium absorption.
Iron is a tricky mineral as you don’t want to consume more iron than your body needs. In reasonable amounts, iron acts as an antioxidant that helps fight free radical damage, but above a certain amount, it can adopt prooxidant properties and actually damage tissues. So, there’s a “sweet spot” for iron. Absorption of iron seems to decline somewhat with age and older people consume fewer iron-rich foods. For some, this can lead to a deficiency. To avoid getting too much iron, ask your physician to check an iron panel to see where your iron status lies – but don’t ever take a supplement without knowing whether you need one. Iron supplements can cause unpleasant side effects as well, including nausea and constipation, and your body can’t dispose of excess iron.
The Bottom Line
Vitamins and minerals work together to help you stay healthy, and if you eat a varied diet of whole foods, you may get enough of the ones listed. However, vitamin D status is impacted by sun exposure more than diet, so you could still have low levels even if you eat a healthy, balanced diet. Absorption can be an issue for vitamin B12 and iron as well. That’s why, for some vitamins and minerals, checking a level is the best approach. That’s something to talk to your doctor about. In the meantime, make sure you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet and consuming enough calories to meet your body’s needs.
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