Bone Deep: Why Vitamin D Is Essential for Older Adults

I remember back when my grandmother was still alive going through a period where she suffered a number of minor falls. She’d been diagnosed with osteoporosis a few years before, but hated swallowing pills, so her vitamin intake was infrequent at best. The falls, however, spurred her into action: she began taking a cocktail of vitamin supplements recommended by her doctor, including vitamin D, to improve her bone health.

Vitamin D is essential for aging adults bonesI remember back when my grandmother was still alive going through a period where she suffered a number of minor falls. She’d been diagnosed with osteoporosis a few years before, but hated swallowing pills, so her vitamin intake was infrequent at best. The falls, however, spurred her into action: she began taking a cocktail of vitamin supplements recommended by her doctor, including vitamin D, to improve her bone health.
After a few months, my mom and I noticed a visible increase in my grandmother’s physical stability—and overall energy. Seeing the effects of a consistent vitamin regimen first hand made me realize how essential a simple supplement can be for an older adult’s health and safety. Vitamin D became a staple in our strategy to help my grandmother age at home.

The Benefits of Vitamin D for Older Adults

Vitamin D helps our bodies to absorb calcium—downright essential for healthy bone mass and strength. Older adults with a deficiency are far more prone to falls, as well as other health problems like fatigue, joint pain, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis. And, healthy doses can support an active lifestyle for aging adults. Needless to say, vitamin D has a slew of benefits:

  • Reduces falls and fractures by increasing bone health and strength
  • Reduces bone pain and weakness by improving mobility
  • Reduces risk of infections, certain cancers, and diabetes by regulating cell growth
  • Helps older adults remain independent by reducing the chances of diseases like osteoporosis

How Much Does Your Loved One Need?

As your loved one ages, the amount of vitamin D they need can change for several reasons.  

  • Diminished absorption: Your loved one’s ability to absorb vitamin D can diminish as they age—they might not spend as much time outside, their kidneys and digestive system can become less functional, their skin gets thinner, and they might eat less of the foods known to be rich in vitamin D.
  • Other variables: Additional factors that can influence how much vitamin D your aging loved one needs include: gender, climate, skin color, kidney function, and diet.

It’s important to speak with your loved one’s doctor to determine their ideal dose. Generally speaking, though, most experts recommend around 600 International Units per day for older adults over 50, and 800 IU daily for those over 70.
Keep in mind that taking too much vitamin D can also be risky for older adults. Signs that your loved one is getting too much of it can include nausea and general weakness. High doses can also cause your loved one’s calcium levels to rise too much, leading to mental confusion and heart problems. It’s unlikely that your loved one would absorb an excess of vitamin D through foods or sunlight alone, but it’s relatively easy for it to happen when taking supplements. While uncommon, overdoses occur by taking over 2000 IU daily.

How to Help Your Aging Loved One Get Enough Vitamin D

Eat Vitamin D-Rich (Or Fortified) Foods

There are a few foods that are naturally packed with vitamin D: cheese, egg yolks, and fatty fishes (salmon, mackerel, and tuna) are the main ones. Alternatively, there are many food products that are fortified with vitamins. These include dairy products (milk and yogurt), soy milk, cereals, and orange juice. When you go grocery shopping, pick up vitamin D-rich foods and plan your loved one’s meals around them—it’s also a nice idea to cook them together.
Be aware that the amount found in common foods can vary, but is generally listed as:

  • Fortified cereal (200 – 350 IU)
  • Milk (100 IU)
  • Orange juice (100 IU)
  • Scrambled eggs (80 IU for two yolks)
  • Fortified yogurt (80 IU)
  • 3-ounce sockeye salmon (450 IU)

Take Supplements

Supplements are the most common way that caregivers can ensure their aging loved one is getting enough vitamin D. On the plus side, you can monitor exactly how much your loved one is getting each day. And rather than needing to be dispersed throughout the day, supplements can be taken all at once.
However, some drugs conflict with vitamin D supplements, so you must consult your loved one’s doctor to find out whether they are safe before adding supplements to their daily vitamin regimen—and closely monitor your loved one when introducing any new vitamin or supplement.

Soak Up Sunshine Outside

Spending time outdoors with the sun shining on your skin is the most efficient way to absorb vitamin D, though also one of the riskiest. Since you want to prevent sunburn and skin cancer, it’s not recommended that older adults rely on sunlight for all their vitamin D needs—they would need to spend about 30 minutes outside in direct sunlight twice a week to absorb enough of it. And, wearing sunscreen, having their skin covered up, or standing in sunlight through a window won’t do anything for their vitamin levels.
Even if sun exposure were safe, many places in America don’t provide enough sunlight year-round to make it possible. However, if your loved one happens to be enjoying a few minutes of sunshine on their face while gardening or walking the dog, it’s helpful to know that they’re also soaking up vitamin D.
Whether it’s through food, sunshine, or supplements, absorbing the right amount of this impactful vitamin only grows more important with each passing year. Ensuring that your aging loved one is getting enough of it will help to reduce their risk of falls—and help them stay independent and active for longer.
Since it’s estimated that the majority of older adults have some sort of vitamin D deficiency, it’s important to figure out whether your loved one is one of them. Taking vitamin D certainly helped my grandmother continue aging in place, and I can only hope that other people’s loved ones can experience similar benefits of enhanced vitality in their older years.
If you’re unsure how to support your aging loved one stay healthy, Institute on Aging offers a wide range of services and programs to help. Contact us today to find out more.

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