Nutritional deficiencies in older adults can lead to a variety of health issues—from heart disease to anemia. These nutritional deficiencies tend to happen for numerous reasons. With age, the number of calories we need begins to decline. This means that every calorie consumed must be nutritious in order to get an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals.
Today, we’re sharing our favorite tips to help you combat nutritional deficiencies as an older adult—so you can live a long, healthy life with your loved ones.
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Older adults are at an increased risk for nutritional deficiencies for several reasons, including:
If you believe you’re suffering from some of the common nutritional deficiencies in older adults, you may experience a wide variety of symptoms—from fatigue and memory loss to gastrointestinal issues and lower bone density. Vitamin and nutritional deficiencies in older adults can take anywhere from months to years to develop and manifest.
One universal symptom of nutritional deficiencies is a loss in quality of life, often due to aches, pains, mood changes, or severe health issues, which can include:
If you notice yourself feeling foggy, off-balance, confused, or forgetful, these can be meaningful indicators of cognitive impairments. If you notice that you’re increasingly sick—or slow to heal when you have a wound, for example—those symptoms can also be a signal that your body doesn’t have the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs to function properly.
Start a conversation with your general practitioner immediately if you’re concerned about potential nutrition deficiencies. They’ll be able to run bloodwork and other tests to determine vitamin and mineral deficiencies in your body and prescribe proper treatment.
To function at optimal levels, our bodies require a large assortment of vitamins and minerals. For older adults, vitamin deficiencies are particularly impactful. There are 10 common nutritional deficiencies that can occur and have a noticeable impact on your overall health and mood.
Please note that this list is not exhaustive. Before you opt to include new supplements or diet changes to your daily routine, discuss it with your primary care physician first—so you can gain a clearer picture of your health and create a strategic plan.
One of the most common nutritional deficiencies in older adults is calcium—and without enough calcium, seniors may suffer from bone loss, osteoporosis, or a higher risk of falling and hurting themselves.
Why It Matters
Calcium is an essential nutrient for overall bone health, maintaining stable blood pressure, and minimizing kidney stones. If you’re not getting enough calcium—either through your diet or with the support of a supplement—you might be at risk for bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis or a higher fall risk.
Calcium deficiencies can stem from diet and medications. Some medications in particular act as antinutrients, which prevent your body from fully absorbing or using the calcium you consume. If you’re worried that your medications or your diet may be impacting your calcium absorption, avoid foods high in sodium, phytates, oxalates, and tannins.
If you’re considering incorporating calcium and/or increasing your vitamin D3 intake to help your body naturally absorb calcium, be aware that you can have an excess of calcium. When your calcium levels are too high, you can experience:
While anyone can be calcium-deficient, studies find that over 70% of the elderly fail to meet the standard calcium intake for seniors. In particular, elderly women are at a higher risk of bone loss.
When women enter menopause, it’s a good time to resurface a conversation with your doctor about your overall health—and potentially begin supplementing to ensure you’re meeting the daily recommended calcium requirements for seniors to keep your bones healthy and strong.
One of the best ways to increase calcium intake for seniors is to make adjustments to your diet. By incorporating foods rich in calcium, your chances of having an excess of calcium are much lower—and you’ll be much less likely to experience any negative symptoms by supplementing with ingredients.
Keep in mind that your body isn’t able to absorb calcium without the support of vitamin D3. So if you’re calcium-deficient, you’ll need sun exposure or an added vitamin D supplement to ensure that your body is able to process and absorb calcium.
Here’s a list of foods you can incorporate into your diet to boost your calcium intake.
Magnesium is essential for many bodily functions, including maintaining blood sugar and pressure, making protein, building bones, supporting your DNA, and regulating muscle and nerve function.
Why It Matters
Magnesium is required to maintain most of the critical functions of the body. However, it can be challenging to diagnose a magnesium deficiency because they often present as asymptomatic.
When your magnesium levels are low for too long, it can lead to a chronic deficiency and increase your chances of developing heart disease, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and an unbalanced or disrupted endocrine system.
Getting too much magnesium can occur with a supplement, so keep an eye out for any related symptoms, such as:
For most seniors, the best option is to meet the magnesium requirements for seniors is through dietary changes in place of supplements. Keep in mind that magnesium can impact the way your body interacts with some antibiotics or other medicines—so be sure to check with your doctor before any changes to your supplement or medication routine.
Elderly people are at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies—and magnesium deficiencies are not uncommon for many seniors. Older adults tend to consume fewer magnesium-rich foods and their bodies may absorb less of the mineral. Additionally, men older than 70 are found to be the most likely to have low intakes of magnesium.
Luckily, it’s easy to increase magnesium through your diet. Naturally-produced magnesium is very simple for the body to absorb—and our bodies will naturally take what it needs and discard the extra. In some cases, a magnesium supplement may be recommended.
There are a handful of delicious foods you can eat to naturally increase your magnesium levels, including:
Vitamin D for seniors is a critical nutrient—it helps your body absorb calcium, one of the main building blocks for strong bones. Vitamin D protects your body from osteoporosis and provides an extra boost of protection against any potential falls.
Why It Matters
There are several benefits of vitamin d for seniors. In addition to bone health, your muscles, nerves, and immune system rely on vitamin D to move, transmit messages, and fight off any invading bacteria or viruses. Because vitamin D is so critical for health, it’s important to do what you can to ensure you’re getting enough of it.
Some individuals deficient in vitamin D may not experience symptoms. Others may experience symptoms like fatigue, muscle weakness, aches, cramps, mood changes like depression or anxious thoughts, or bone pain. The long-term impact of a vitamin D deficiency can include diabetes, heart disease, immune system disorders, some types of cancer, and multiple sclerosis.
Some factors that can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D are a lack of sun exposure, laxatives, steroids, seizure-control drugs, and cholesterol-lowering drugs.
If you’re looking to increase your vitamin D to meet the vitamin D requirements for seniors, we caution you against supplementation. It is possible to experience vitamin D toxicity when you’re supplementing it, which can look like:
Vitamin D deficiencies are very common in older adults, particularly those who live in northern climates with limited access to the sun. It’s also noted that individuals with darker skin tones may have a harder time absorbing vitamin D from the sun, leading to a vitamin D deficiency.
One of the easiest ways to increase vitamin D for seniors is to get outdoors and soak up some sunshine. It’s recommended to get 10-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure 2–3 times a week. The goal is to allow the sun to hit your face and arms.
Your body can’t absorb vitamin D through a window, or with sunscreen—so for just a few minutes each week, remove those barriers and let yourself enjoy the sun.
Another nutritional deficiency to watch out for is vitamin C, a water-soluble nutrient that acts as an antioxidant to protect your cells.
Why It Matters
Vitamin C is an imperative nutrient your body requires to create blood vessels, build muscle, develop collagen in your bones, grow and maintain cartilage, and heal wounds. Vitamin C also serves as an antioxidant working to protect your cells from the impact of free radicals.
Being deficient in vitamin C is relatively rare in the United States and in Canada. However, in rare cases, individuals who get below 10mg of vitamin C per day can suffer from scurvy, a condition with symptoms that include fatigue, joint pain, poor wound healing, gum inflammation, and red or purple spots on the skin.
Most of us are unlikely to see a concerningly low level of vitamin C—however, you may be at risk for a deficiency if you are:
Is vitamin C good for seniors? Yes! Even though most seniors aren’t deficient in vitamin C, boosting your vitamin C intake often has a positive impact on your health.
One of the easiest ways to naturally increase vitamin C for seniors is to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Many of them are naturally high in vitamin C, but the highest ones are:
Are you asking yourself, is vitamin E is good for seniors? Absolutely. Just as vitamin C is an important nutrient, vitamin E is as well. The benefits of vitamin E for seniors include healthy blood, brain, and skin. Vitamin E is also known to impact vision and reproductive health, but those results are less likely to be seen in older adults.
Why It Matters
This powerful nutrient contains antioxidant properties, helping protect cells from any damage caused by free radicals. If you’re low or deficient in vitamin E, you may experience a loss of feeling in your arms and legs, a loss of body movement control, muscle weakness and fatigue, vision problems, and a weakened immune system.
The benefits of vitamin E for seniors should come from a healthy diet—and not supplementation. It’s easy to overdose if you’re taking an oral vitamin E supplement and side effects may include:
Although most people are able to get enough vitamin E naturally, some seniors are at a higher risk for a deficiency if they have problems absorbing dietary fat or have had gastric bypass surgery. Additionally, a low concentration of vitamin E in the blood has been linked with physical decline in older adults.
Here are a few dietary suggestions to help you incorporate vitamin E-rich foods into your daily diet:
The benefits of vitamin B12 for seniors include helping your body function in a healthy and efficient way by producing red blood cells and strengthening cell metabolism, nerve function, and bone health.
Why It Matters
While it’s possible to experience a deficiency due to diet, most often a vitamin B12 deficiency is a result of the body being unable to properly digest and use vitamin B12. This could be due to something like Celiac’s disease, Crohn’s disease, prolonged use of drugs to treat gastroesophageal reflux, diabetes, or stomach problems.
When you’re experiencing a vitamin B12 deficiency, it can look like:
Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common among older adults. Since a lot of the symptoms of deficiency are similar to many conditions that develop with age, it’s important to have an ongoing conversation with your doctor about how you’re feeling—and if you’re interested in pursuing some testing to confirm your B12 levels.
If you’re wondering how to meet the vitamin B12 requirements for seniors, pursuing a diet-first approach is one of the best ways to increase your levels and feel healthier.
Add these ingredients to your shopping list to keep your B12 levels healthy and high:
Folate is most commonly associated with prenatal care, however, it’s not a nutrient to discount with age. Folate offers numerous benefits to seniors as it’s involved in the production and formation of red blood cells required for healthy cell growth, function, and regulation.
Why It Matters
Folate is a powerhouse nutrient that helps our bodies do some incredible things. Folate benefits for seniors may include the prevention of the following:
A folate deficiency can occur if your diet lacks folate-rich foods, or if you experience a condition that would limit your ability to absorb nutrients in your digestive tract. It is also possible for increased alcohol intake to decrease your body's folate levels.
If you choose to supplement folate, your body will excrete excess folate through your urine, putting you at no risk of overdosing or toxicity. However, we recommend eating a folate-rich diet and talking to your primary care physician before you opt to supplement folate.
Many older adults over the age of 50 are at risk of deficiency in vitamin B12 and folate. A low amount of folate and B12 is linked to poor long-term health among older adults.
Boost your folate with a few dietary changes. Folate is found in these foods:
Potassium is an essential mineral that supports healthy kidney and heart function, muscle contraction, and nerve transmission.
Why It Matters
Potassium and sodium are closely related. Both play key roles in maintaining overall balance and both have been linked to the risk of chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
In mild cases of potassium deficiency, you may be asymptomatic or experience the following:
While potassium is involved in so many things, ongoing low potassium could be stemming from:
Potassium deficiencies in older adults are very common, however, the exact reasons are still unknown. Most people are at risk for low potassium levels after an illness that includes vomiting, diarrhea, or laxative use.
In most cases, older adults who enjoy a balanced diet and ongoing check-ins with your primary care provider will experience normal levels of potassium.
If your doctor encourages you to increase potassium in your diet, here’s a list of foods to help you meet the potassium requirements for seniors.
Fiber is an important nutrient in maintaining a healthy digestive system. It contributes to healthy, regular bowel movements—and without enough fiber, you may experience constipation or stomach issues.
Why It Matters
Fiber can be understood in two categories: soluble and insoluble fiber.
As we age, our digestive systems change as well. The gastrointestinal tract may become less able to fully absorb nutrients, leading to malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, and constipation. Dietary fiber for older adults is very important: the recommended total fiber intake for adults over the age of 50 should include at least 30 grams per day for men and 21 grams per day for women.
If you’re not having regular bowel movements, you should consider talking with your doctor about increasing fiber in your diet and potentially supplementing if you’re unable to get enough through food alone.
When considering fiber requirements for seniors, you need both soluble and insoluble fiber in your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids typically include three main types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body doesn’t produce ALA naturally—so you must get it from the foods you consume.
Why It Matters
Omega-3s are powerful components of each membrane that surrounds every cell of your body. They also provide calories to your body and foster a healthy heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system.
Omega-3s have also been shown to support a handful of diseases, including:
Not only are omega-3s good for supporting specific diseases, but they’ve also been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older people. It is also suggested that fish oil can help boost the immune system when taken or incorporated into your diet regularly.
Omega-3 fatty acids are recognized as one of the key nutrients that support a successful aging process. Studies find that an increase in omega-3 fatty acids can help with cognitive function, bone health, muscle tone, and overall health status.
Wondering how to increase omega-3 fatty acids for seniors? Omega-3s are found naturally in many foods and you can typically get an adequate amount of omega-3s directly from your diet.
Here are a few ideas to help you incorporate fish oil into your diet naturally:
There are also omega-3 dietary supplements available. Talk with your primary care physician about the best potential option for your overall health.
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