Vitamin D deficiency (hypovitaminosis D) is an increasingly common condition among people of all ages, but older adults are at increased risk. The signs of low vitamin D are often subtle and can be confused with other health conditions, especially in seniors. Learning where vitamin D comes from, the symptoms of this nutritional deficiency and how it can be addressed will help you ensure your aging loved one is getting the nutrients they need.
How Do People Get Vitamin D?
Scientists define vitamins as organic compounds that are vital for normal metabolic function that must be consumed because they cannot be produced in the body. Vitamin D, however, is a little bit different from other vitamins because it is produced by the body in a chemical reaction that occurs when the skin is exposed to UVB rays from sunlight.
Diet helps but, according to the Endocrine Society, most people only get about 10 percent of their nutritional requirement for vitamin D from the food they eat. Even though many foods are fortified with added vitamin D, such as dairy products, orange juice and cereals, the amounts these products contain still fall short of the recommended daily allowance (600 IU for adults ages 19–70 and 800 IU for adults over 70).
A number of factors can play a role in vitamin D deficiencies in older adults. Because they spend the majority of their time indoors, older adults get minimal exposure to natural sunlight. Additionally, as skin thins with age, vitamin D synthesis becomes much less efficient. Reduced appetite and impaired absorption of nutrients further compound this problem for seniors.
Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency in Seniors
Be aware of the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency to ensure older adults get the nutrients they need:
- Weak Muscles
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. Vitamin D is also necessary for aiding and regulating calcium absorption and keeps bones, muscles and teeth in excellent condition. The combination of weakened muscles and bones caused by low vitamin D levels has been associated with an increased risk of falls and fractures, which can be very dangerous and even fatal for the elderly.
- Changes in Mood and Cognitive Function
Since vitamin D converts into the active hormone, calcitriol, it functions differently within the body than other true vitamins. Vitamin D is believed to help regulate immune function and the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that influence moods (dopamine and serotonin). Studies have shown that 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 suffer from vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency. In addition, low vitamin D levels may contribute to cognitive decline and a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
- Weight Gain
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 that 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 may not realize that they could have a nutritional deficiency, so they ignore their symptoms. Low vitamin D levels may also cause widespread pain in areas like the shoulders, pelvis, ribcage and lower back, which can leave a senior feeling drained. Someone who has stiff joints and is constantly feeling fatigued might want to boost their vitamin D intake (especially if they do not go outside much or do not eat many fortified foods).
- Digestive Issues
Studies have shown that 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 a fat-soluble vitamin, GI conditions can cause nutritional deficiencies to worsen even further.
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 and/or an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement can help seniors feel better fast.
Sources: Vitamin D (https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/vitamin-d); Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Consumers (https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/); The Role of Vitamin D in the Aging Adult (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4399494/); Vitamin D and your health: Breaking old rules, raising new hopes (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/vitamin-d-and-your-health-breaking-old-rules-raising-new-hopes); Psychological Consequences of Vitamin D Deficiency (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-breakthrough-depression-solution/201111/psychological-consequences-vitamin-d-deficiency); Vitamin D Status and Rates of Cognitive Decline in a Multiethnic Cohort of Older Adults (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5023277/); Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908269/); A 12-week double-blind randomized clinical trial of vitamin D₃ supplementation on body fat mass in healthy overweight and obese women. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22998754); Unrecognised severe vitamin D deficiency (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2427091/); Vitamin D and gastrointestinal diseases: inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3036961/)