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Vitamin D and senior living: What to know

Living an active life in retirement means staying on top of personal care needs. While residents of retirement communities may need help managing care needs for conditions and medications, they can still take control of their well-being in various ways.

One such method for seniors to lead a healthy life in retirement is ensuring they get enough nutrients. While a lot is made of growing bodies getting enough vitamins, aging ones need them too. You may never be too old to pop a chewable or gummy vitamin supplement.

Specifically, seniors need to focus on getting enough vitamin D. This applies not only to diet, but to life in general: The sun is a major source of vitamin D. A growing body of evidence points to numerous negative health effects of a vitamin D deficiency — making it all the more important seniors take action to protect their well-being.

Why vitamin D is important

Vitamin D is essential to the human body's absorption of calcium, making sufficient levels of the vitamin necessary for skeletal health and bone strength. But the impact of vitamin D extends across the body, as the mineral also plays a role in the immune system, muscle function, cardiovascular health, respiration and brain development. Vitamin D is also notable for being the only vitamin the human body can produce on its own.

This occurs when direct sunlight interacts with the skin, kicking off a series of biological processes that create, convert and activate vitamin D, which is used to manage calcium and help cells grow and communicate across the body.

Why seniors may be vulnerable to a deficiency

Vitamin D is very important to healthy aging, but the reality is seniors are often the most likely to develop a deficiency. This can happen for a number of reasons. As they grow older, seniors:

  • May feel decreased appetite, and thus reduce their dietary intake, and subsequently suffer from eating fewer vitamin D-rich foods.
  • Can experience lower levels of exposure to sunlight. We're not exactly talking about soaking in the rays for a bronzed tan, but regular sunlight you'd get on a walk or sitting outside.

This decreased consumption of vitamin D and capability to produce it can cause serious negative side effects in seniors. According to a study published in 2012 by the journal "Aging and Disease," inadequate vitamin D levels in seniors "reduces well-being, aggravates the [aging] process, in particular reducing mobility and adds to the severity of osteoporosis and the risks of falls and fragility fractures with all of their severe consequences. It also reduces longevity, increasing the risk of cardiovascular deaths in particular, but may also increase the risks of type 2 diabetes and certain common cancers, notably colorectal cancer."

Vitamin D has also been observed to have links to rheumatoid arthritis.

Vitamin D even more important for senior women

All seniors should be aware of the need for vitamin D, but women in particular need to take care to incorporate vitamin D into their lives. Many of the chronic conditions that worsen with age affect women. For instance, multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease, is seen more commonly in women, and is linked to low levels of vitamin D, which underscores the relationship between the vitamin and women's health.

How to improve vitamin D intake

According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, older adults need 800 to 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day. Compounding medical and lifestyle factors can raise this level, but there are many opportunities in retirement life to get vitamin D, especially if you or a loved one is in senior living:

  • Eat vitamin D-rich foods: Retirement community kitchens take steps to offer a menu that reflects senior nutritional needs, and vitamin D is no different. Foods that are high in vitamin D like egg yolks, cheese, liver, fatty fish (tuna and cod), and enriched food products like cereals and soy milk are always good choices.
  • Get out in the sun: Sometimes it can be tough to get out of the house, but in a retirement community, residents have a number of chances to get outside. A communal garden is one way to get valuable time in the sun, while early morning exercise with a neighbor or friend is another idea. Outings organized by the community — like those to a day-time baseball game — may provide even more incentive and options for getting enough sunlight.
  • Take a supplement: There are a variety of medicinal products that seniors can use to up their vitamin D intake easily. However, they should also be aware that too high level of vitamin D can have adverse effects.

As you map out your retirement or that of a loved one, don't forget about ol' vitamin D. The nutrient is essential to physical well-being in old age, so addressing intake and deficiency risks is important.

Interested in more information about independent living? Contact us today.