Nutrition is the cornerstone of good health, regardless of how old you are. Nutritional requirements, including aging and vitamins, change to some degree with age. For one, you need fewer calories as you lose lean body mass and your metabolism slows. You probably already knew that, didn’t you?
If you eat the same diet you ate at 30 when you’re 50, you’ll probably pack on at least a few unwanted pounds of body fat.
Even if you gain only a measly pound a year, you’ll end up 20 pounds heavier than you were at age 30. It sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? Physical activity can offset some of that weight gain if you’re consistent about doing it. Hope we’re motivating you to do it! If not, we’ll keep on trying!
What about other nutrients? You may need more of certain vitamins and minerals as you age? Here are three vitamin and mineral deficiencies that become more common with age.
Aging and Vitamins: Vitamin D
You may need more vitamin D as you age. No surprise here. You don’t find vitamin D naturally in many foods, although some foods like milk and cereal are fortified with it. Most people get vitamin D from exposure to sunlight.
Your skin has the amazing ability to convert compounds on its surface to vitamin D precursors. Your liver and kidneys can convert these precursors to active vitamin D – but only if you get enough sun exposure. Many people don’t. They worry, for good reason, about skin cancer. Sometimes it’s hard to strike the right balance.
Vitamin D deficiency becomes more common after the age of 50. As you age, your skin becomes less efficient at making vitamin D precursors and you end up with less active vitamin D as a result. Darker skinned people are at especially high risk. The extra melanin in their skin blocks sunlight absorption.
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in health. Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium from the foods you eat and may play a role in keeping your immune system healthy. Plus, you don’t FEEL good when your vitamin D level is low. It’s common for vitamin D deficient people to experience fatigue, vague aches and pains and mild muscle weakness.
We suggest checking your vitamin D level through a blood test to see where you stand. If you’re low, a vitamin D supplement can help you get back on track. We prefer that you get your vitamins and minerals from healthy food sources but with the exception of fatty fish like salmon (still with the bones), egg yolks and fortified foods, there aren’t a lot of reliable food sources of vitamin D.
As you grow older, you produce less stomach acid. Not only can this create digestive problems, it makes it harder to absorb vitamin B12. That’s not a good thing. Some people don’t produce enough of a protein called intrinsic factor that’s required to absorb vitamin B12.
What are the consequences? Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia and permanent damage to your nervous system. Vitamin B12 deficiency can mimic diseases like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s dementia. That’s because you need vitamin B12 to maintain myelin, the protective sheath that covers nerve cells. You also need it for healthy brain function.
Other factors that increase your risk for a low B12 level is eating a vegan diet (vitamin B12 is found naturally only in meat and dairy foods, although some foods are fortified with it), taking medications that reduce stomach acid and taking a diabetes medication called metformin.
You can check your vitamin B12 with a blood test – and you should if you fall into these high risk categories.
If your vitamin B12 level is low, a sub-lingual vitamin B12 supplement is an effective way to supplement since it bypasses your digestive tract.
An animal study carried out by Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University and the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences showed zinc is absorbed less efficiently with age. Since zinc is important for a healthy immune system, researchers suggest that a decline in zinc absorption may account for some of the common diseases we see with aging.
Zinc helps to keep inflammation in check and protects against infection by its effects on the immune system. Just as importantly, zinc protects DNA, the genetic material inside cells, from damage that can lead to cancer.
Yes, zinc is important and you may need more of it as you age but we don’t recommend taking a zinc supplement.
Taking zinc in supplemental form can interfere with the absorption of other minerals including iron and copper, creating a nutritional imbalance. Plus, zinc supplements can interact with some medications. Instead, add more zinc-rich food sources to your diet.
One of the best ways to get zinc is to eat fish or shellfish. By far the best source is oysters. A serving of oysters has almost 10 times the daily amount of zinc you need on a daily basis! Other good sources of zinc include beans, nuts and seeds. Whole grain cereals and breads are also rich sources of zinc but they contain compounds called phytates that reduce zinc absorption.
If you eat a vegan vegetarian diet, your risk for zinc deficiency is higher. Some prescription medications can also reduce zinc. These include diuretics, medications that reduce acid and medications called ACE inhibitors. Add more nuts, beans and seeds to your diet to help meet your body’s requirement for zinc.
Watch your caffeine intake too. Caffeine reduces zinc absorption. Unlike vitamin B12 and vitamin D levels, it’s more difficult to check a zinc level. So, make sure you’re getting enough through diet.
The Bottom Line?
So, what’s the take-home message? You need fewer calories as you age BUT you may need more of some vitamins and minerals. When it comes to aging and vitamins, choose your foods carefully. The ones you select should be nutrient dense, not empty calories. Every calorie counts as you get older.
If you’re over 50, ask your doctor to check a vitamin D and vitamin B12 level. If you’re taking metformin or an acid-blocking medication, take a sublingual vitamin B12 supplement along with it.
University of Rochester Medical Center. “As You Age, Be Aware of B12 Deficiency”
Oregon State University. “Zinc deficiency mechanism linked to aging, multiple diseases”
Immunity & Ageing 2009, 6:9 doi:10.1186/1742-4933-6-9.
National Institutes of Health. “Zinc”