Vitamin D and Seniors’ Bone Health – A Key to Successful Aging for Many

Has a doctor told your senior loved one her bones could be weak and she might be more likely to break a bone?

Are you worried that your senior may fall and break a bone?

Do you think they may get — or already have — osteoporosis, a disease where the bones become fragile or porous?

Our bones are complex structures referred to as a matrix which is formed with protein fibers including collagen, water, and the minerals calcium and phosphorus. This matrix not only results in strong but also flexible bones.

Our bone matrix is ever changing throughout our lives in a process called remodeling where old bone is replaced by new bone. Bones are living tissue and always being rebuilt.

Bones do more than hold us upright. They also make red and white blood cells, contain bone marrow, have a blood supply, protect our vital organs, provide a place for muscles needed for mobility to attach and store minerals needed by our body.

Adults have 206 bones and they all need our help to stay strong.

Causes of Bone Loss

Each one of us can develop weak and brittle bones as we age.

If we lose more bone tissue than our bodies make, our bones can become brittle.

There are many reasons why bones can become weak:

  • decreased bone mass – osteoporosis
  • postmenopausal changes in bone once estrogen levels drop
  • loss of calcium in the matrix
  • decrease in protein growth leading to insufficient collagen for remodeling
  • decrease in bone growth hormone
  • inadequate calcium intake or inability to absorb the calcium eaten
  • decreased movement
  • autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
  • gastrointestinal diseases such as celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome
  • rickets/osteomalacia
  • smoking
  • certain medications

Vitamin D and Aging Bones

It is important to have adequate Vitamin D available to senior’s bones so calcium can do its job.

Low vitamin D levels have been reported in 40-100% of elder adults in the United States.

Vitamin D has been shown to help improve the absorption of calcium, either in food or a supplement, to further aid bone strengthening.

Older adults are at increased risk of developing vitamin D insufficiency because aging skin cannot make vitamin D as efficiently, they usually spend more time indoors, and they may have inadequate intakes of vitamin D as well as calcium.

The risk of falls can increase when your senior is deficient in vitamin D as symptoms include muscle weakness and pain which can lead to poor balance and decreased mobility.

Researchers found that a vitamin D supplement of 700-1000 IU each day reduced falls in older adults by 19%.

Be aware that excessive vitamin D can be harmful so experts recommend seniors follow the recommendations for safe levels.

Tips for Strong Bones

Our seniors may need our assistance and reminders to make efforts to keep their bones strong a part of their daily routine. Calcium is important but adequate vitamin D intake is also needed to maintain our seniors’ bone strength.

The Institute of Medicine recommends adults consume 600 IU (international units) a day for people aged 1-70 and 800 IU/day for people over 70.

Here are ways seniors (and caregivers) can strengthen their bones:

  1. Most seniors, especially women, are alerted to begin calcium supplementation as they age to protect their bones. Be sure the calcium supplement also contains vitamin D. There are two types of vitamin D in the supplements that you may see on your store shelves: D2 ergocalciferol and D3 cholecalciferol.
  2. Assist the body’s own production of vitamin D by getting into the sun a little bit everyday. Researchers suggest 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen can result in your body’s own production of vitamin D.
  3. Eat foods fortified with vitamin D such as milk, some ready to eat cereals, some brands of orange juice, yogurt, margarine and other foods
  4. Eat foods that are natural sources of vitamin D, such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, and mackerel) and fish liver oils. Small amounts of vitamin D are found in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.
  5. Do weight bearing activities such as walking, resistant exercises or weightlifting
  6. Talk to your senior’s doctor to see if hormone replacement would be beneficial

If possible, try to help your senior consume enough vitamin D through foods before they take supplements.

Be careful that your senior doesn’t take a vitamin D supplement if already taking a calcium supplement containing vitamin D to prevent excessive intake.

Taking steps to build bone tissue and keep seniors’ bones strong can help prevent some fractures. However, a strong impact could make it impossible for the bone to remain intact.

The good news is that, the better the diet and awareness of nutrition to maintain strong bones, the easier the broken bone will be able to heal. The bone matrix will remodel with the proper building blocks found in a healthy diet.

Whichever method your senior chooses to increase his or her level of vitamin D, it will help maintain strong bones in the future and should not be overlooked as part of a healthy diet.