As seniors age, they generally need to take in fewer calories each day because they don’t expend as much energy as they used to. That means there’s less room for empty calories and it’s even more important that the calories they DO eat are nutritious. But getting the right amount of nutrients in order to avoid vitamin and mineral deficiency during this stage of life can be a challenge.
Why Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency Is Common in SeniorsMany Americans, of all ages, don’t get proper nutrition. But the World Health Organization says older people are especially vulnerable to malnourishment. Some reasons for this are:
- The body absorbs nutrients less well with age.
- Some medications cause dietary deficiency by interfering with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
- About half of older Americans have lost many, or even all, of their teeth, making many nutrient-rich foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, hard to eat.
- Nutritious foods tend to be more expensive than less nutritious foods.
- Many seniors have issues with mobility and access to transportation, both of which can prevent them from making the frequent grocery store trips necessary to maintain a supply of fresh, nutritious foods.
- Appetite decreases with age, and it’s common for seniors, especially those with dementia, to forget to eat or resist eating.
The World Health Organization points out that heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer are common among older people, and that diet plays a role in all of those conditions. Though you can get nutrients from supplements, the body absorbs nutrients best when it gets them from food. Given all of this, it’s clear that a proper diet full of vitamins and minerals is essential for good health as we age.
Take note of the following nutrients, which seniors are especially likely to be deficient in, and make sure you or the seniors in your life are getting enough of each:
Vitamin B12The human body needs vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, to make the DNA that exists in all of our cells. But up to one in five seniors may have a vitamin B12 deficiency. This is because the body absorbs this vitamin less well with age and because older people are more likely to have a history of alcoholism, long-term use of heartburn medicine or weight loss surgery, all of which make it harder for the body to absorb this vitamin. All adults, including seniors, should get 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 every day.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause pernicious anemia, a condition in which the body’s poor absorption of vitamin B12 stops red blood cells from delivering enough oxygen to the blood. Symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency can include:
- Pale or jaundiced skin
- Inflamed tongue
- Weakness and fatigue
- Tingling sensations in the hands or feet
- Trouble walking
- Blurred vision
- Shortness of breath or dizziness
- Changes in thinking, memory and mood
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, such as fish, meat, eggs and dairy products. This can make it hard for vegetarians and vegans to get enough of the vitamin, but there are some plant foods that are fortified with it.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can be detected with a blood test. If the test shows low levels of the vitamin, a doctor may prescribe an oral supplement that contains very high doses of the vitamin, intramuscular shots of vitamin B12, or both, in addition to eating more vitamin B-rich foods.
Vitamin DVitamin D strengthens the immune system and enables muscles and nerves to do their jobs, but it’s mainly known for its effect on bones. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and is essential to keeping bones strong and warding off osteoporosis as we age. Despite vitamin D’s importance, it’s one of the most common vitamin deficiencies – as many as three-quarters of America’s seniors may not be getting enough of it.
Younger people get much of their vitamin D from being out in the sun. But older people tend to spend less time outside, and as skin ages it gets worse at producing vitamin D when exposed to sunlight anyway. The kidneys also process vitamin D less well with age. For these reasons, people have to get more of their vitamin D from their diet as they age. And they also need more of it in general – after age 70, the Food and Nutrition Board recommends adults get 800 international units of vitamin D a day, up from 600 international units a day prior to age 70. Vitamin D isn’t found naturally in many foods (fatty fish like salmon and tuna are some of the best natural sources), but quite a few foods, including some brands of cereal, orange juice, margarine and yogurt, are fortified with vitamin D.
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may be subtle or nonexistent until a serious problem like a fractured bone happens, so it’s common for doctors to test their senior patients’ vitamin D levels periodically to make sure they don’t have a dietary deficiency. If a patient’s vitamin D levels are low, the doctor will likely recommend taking a supplement in addition to eating more vitamin D-rich foods.
CalciumCalcium plays many roles in the body, but the job for which it’s most well-known is keeping bones and teeth strong and healthy. Women over 50 and men over 70 are especially likely to be calcium deficient, partly because the body doesn’t absorb calcium as well with age and partly because they may also be deficient in vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Because of this, people in these age groups need more calcium than younger adults. Men between 51 and 70 years old should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day; women 51 and older and men 71 and older should get 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day.
If the body isn’t getting enough calcium from food or supplements, it deals with this dietary deficiency by taking calcium from bones and teeth. This isn’t likely to cause noticeable symptoms right away, but can lead to painful fractures and osteoporosis.
Calcium is found in dairy products, vegetables like kale and broccoli, some breads and pastas, and is added to many cereals, juices and meat substitutes such as tofu. Some over-the-counter antacids also contain calcium.
MagnesiumMagnesium helps build bone and regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, so it’s no surprise that low levels of this mineral are associated with increased risk of osteoporosis, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Most Americans don’t get the recommended amount of magnesium from their diets, but men older than 70 are especially likely to have low magnesium intake, partly because the body absorbs magnesium less well with age. Some medications, including diuretics taken for high blood pressure, can also reduce the body’s ability to absorb magnesium.
Men should get 400-420 milligrams of magnesium a day, while women should get 310-320 milligrams a day.
Low levels of magnesium may be symptomless, but symptoms can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- In extreme cases, an abnormal heart rhythm and seizures
Magnesium can be found in whole grains, nuts, milk, yogurt and leafy green vegetables like spinach. Some foods, including many breakfast cereals, are fortified with magnesium.
PotassiumPotassium is a mineral that the body uses in almost everything it does. A lack of potassium in a person’s diet isn’t likely to cause short-term symptoms, but in the long term it is associated with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, kidney stones and poor bone health. Unfortunately, most Americans get much less than the recommended amount of potassium, which is 4,700 milligrams a day for adults, including seniors. People taking diuretics for high blood pressure or receiving treatment with dialysis, as many older Americans do, are especially likely to have trouble keeping their potassium levels up.
Potassium can be found in milk and yogurt, meat and fish, some beans and nuts, vegetables such as potatoes (with their skin on), spinach and broccoli, and dried fruits, orange juice and bananas.
Keep in mind that it is possible to have too much of a good thing – some nutrients are toxic at high levels. Work with healthcare providers to make sure you or the seniors in your life are getting the right amount of these and other nutrients we all need to avoid a dietary deficiency and stay strong and healthy.