Mom always said to take our vitamins. We drank milk to make our bones strong and ate spinach to grow our muscles. Our growing bodies needed all of the strength they could get.
As adults, it’s just as important to keep up these healthy habits. Even if you take your vitamins regularly, after the long dark days of winter, you may be at risk for vitamin D deficiency.
Why Do We Need Vitamin D?
Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and promote bone growth. Vitamin D is so crucial to our health that our body makes it all on its own. But there’s one important ingredient needed to do that —sunlight.
For years we have been hearing about the dangers of getting too much sun—wrinkles, sunspots and melanoma are only a few. But not getting enough sun has its dangers, too.
People who live in northern climates, those with dark skin or who spend too much time inside often do not receive enough of the sun’s rays to produce an adequate amount of vitamin D. And as an older adult, your skin doesn’t make as much of the vitamin on its own.
The Dangers of Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D keeps bones healthy by increasing your body’s ability to absorb calcium. Vitamin D deficiency causes bones to weaken and become soft. This is called rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
Soft bones are more likely to bend, deform and fracture. Aches and pains, particularly in combination with fatigue, are classic symptoms.
As an older adult, you have a greater risk of falling down. Strong bones are better able to withstand falls without breaking. A lack of vitamin D increases your risk of hip and other non-spinal fractures. With weak bones, a fall can turn into a life-altering disaster.
Vitamin D deficiency is linked to an increased risk for numerous serious diseases. The list includes breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and autoimmune disorders.
Causes of Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency was rare when we spent most of our days outside tending crops. Now that we spend most of our time indoors, we have to think about how we’re getting our vitamin D. You may be at risk if:
- You don’t get enough sun. If you live in a northern climate (above the line between Philadelphia and San Francisco) or spend most of your time indoors, you may not be getting enough of the sun’s rays.
- You have dark skin. The pigment in your skin limits your body’s ability to capture vitamin D.
- You’re obese. If you have a BMI over 30, your body is less efficient at creating vitamin D.
- You don’t eat enough foods with vitamin D. Vegans are particularly at risk. Vitamin D is rare in food, but you can find it in animal-based foods like egg yolks, cheese, fish and fish oils, fortified milk and beef liver.
- You have a digestive disease. If you have Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis or celiac disease, your intestines can’t properly absorb the vitamin D from food.
- You're over 65. As we age, our bodies produce less vitamin D, even with regular sun exposure.
You could get vitamin D the old-fashioned way, by exposing your skin to sunlight. Without sunscreen, it doesn’t take much. The problem is that it’s easy to overdose. Too much sun is not only painful—it also increases your risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging.
Your other options are food and supplements.
- Vitamin-rich food. Vitamin D is rare in food. Your best source is fish and shellfish—oil fish like salmon, halibut, cod and tuna are best. Egg yolks are a source of vitamin D, but they also contain nearly a day’s quota of cholesterol. Keep an eye out for milk, orange juice and cereals that are vitamin D fortified.
- Most people require supplements to get the vitamin D they need. Read the labels carefully so you don’t get too little or too much. Make a note of how many other vitamins are in the supplements before you take them. Cod liver oil is a rich source, but it has too much vitamin A for regular use. A doctor may suggest you get tested to determine whether you’re vitamin D deficient and to see how much you need.
As an older adult, it’s essential to stay on top of the changes occurring in your body. Talk with your doctor and make sure your vitamin D levels are where they should be. Vitamin D deficiency can be subtle, but its effects can be devastating. Vitamin D keeps your bones healthy. The stronger your bones are, the stronger you’ll be.
Tracy Layden is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Tracy leads the marketing efforts at Alert-1, a personal safety technology and consulting firm dedicated to helping seniors live safely and independently. Tracy holds a degree in mathematics from Scripps College and is an accomplished ballroom dancer and equestrian.