By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
One of the things I love most about spending time in Florida is that almost year-round, I can go outside and “catch a few rays,” as they say. The sun and fresh air never fail to recharge my energy level—plus, I get the added benefit of knowing they also help recharge my vitamin D level.
Vitamin D has significant and wide-ranging effects in the body; however, too many people are still unaware that they’re deficient in it. Seniors are especially likely to be affected. They tend to get outdoors less, so they miss out on the natural ability of the sun’s UVB rays to stimulate vitamin D production in the skin. Dietary intake tends to fall, too, which compounds losses.
If you’re over the age of 65, it’s critical that you work with your doctor to monitor your vitamin D level, because it can have a tremendous impact on your ability to remain vibrant and independent as you age. Here are five examples of how you’ll benefit from keeping your levels high.
Why Vitamin D Benefits Are Crucial for Seniors
1. Stronger, More Effective Immune System
If you want to make sure your immune system can successfully fight off bacteria, viruses, and other microbes, then maintaining a healthy vitamin D level is one of the best things you can do. This is because the body requires vitamin D to fully activate its “natural killer cells”—one of our first lines of defense against pathogens.
Not only is vitamin D necessary to activate our body’s natural killer cells, but it supports the production of an antimicrobial protein that protects the parts of our bodies constantly exposed to germs—our skin, respiratory tract, and GI system.
One of the downstream benefits of getting more vitamin D, obviously, is that you’ll be sick less. But you’ll also be less prone to developing infections. This is especially important for seniors because they typically have less ability to mount a resistance once bacteria take hold.
This vitamin D benefit was confirmed by an Australian study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It followed a group of 644 men and women ages 60–84, half of whom were given 2,000 IUs of supplemental vitamin D daily, while the other half received placebo pills. Over the course of a year, researchers found that the people over 70 who were also taking vitamin D were significantly less likely to have needed an antibiotic to treat an infection.
2. Added Protection Against Cancer
If you’re not convinced about vitamin D’s value as an immune booster, keep in mind that your natural killer cells are also responsible for destroying cells that have become malignant. That makes them a front line of defense not only against infection, but also cancer.
So far, the most data collected on this topic have associated low vitamin D levels with increased risk for colorectal, breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancers.
3. Less Risk of Falling
Falling is the most common reason seniors are admitted to nursing homes and rehab facilities. If you want to avoid that experience, keep your vitamin D level up.
A 2015 meta-analysis that looked at the relationship between vitamin D levels and falling found that people who fall tend to have lower vitamin D levels. Research also tells us that the more deficient you are, the more likely you are to take a tumble.
Moreover, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and remodel bone, keeping them strong. So if you do fall, you’ll be less likely to break something that requires rehab.
4. Clearer Thinking
Low vitamin D levels can also affect your brain— your ability to focus, process information, and make decisions. They may even influence your likelihood for developing more serious cognitive problems.
Researchers following participants in the United States Cardiovascular Health Study (average age, 74) found that over a period of about five and a half years, people who had severe vitamin D deficiency were more than twice as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Severe deficiency was defined as less than 25 nmol/L.
5. A More Positive Outlook
For quite a few years now, there’s been discussion about low vitamin D levels being linked with depression. The most recent science is mixed, at best—but I think it’s worth mentioning because some of the results suggest that supplemental vitamin D can be helpful for people going through periods of major depression.
I bring this up because seniors are more likely to suffer the loss of a spouse, a partner, friends, and other vital connections. Unfortunately, the grief and sadness that follow can sometimes become so overwhelming that they prevent people from developing new connections. This can be highly damaging for long-term health.
I’m not saying that vitamin D is a magic bullet that will make everything okay. But keeping your levels in the healthy range may help you better manage these major life transitions.
How to Increase Your Vitamin D Levels
There are three ways you can boost the amount of vitamin D in your system:
Sunshine. The best way to increase your vitamin D level is to get outside for some mid-day sunlight. About 20 minutes will do the trick. Just don’t wear sunscreen—it prevents UVB rays from penetrating the skin. If you’re planning to be out for longer than 20 minutes, go the first 20 minutes with bare skin, and then apply the lotion.
Vitamin D supplements. When heading outside isn’t feasible—and my neighbors in Connecticut will be quick to tell me, “Doc, it’s freezing up here”—your best option is to take supplemental vitamin D. (Actually, taking a vitamin D supplement is a good idea regardless of how much you go outside.) Look for the vitamin D3 form, and take 2,000 IUs daily. Since vitamin D is fat soluble, make sure to take it with a meal that includes some fat – preferably a heart-healthy fat like olive oil – to enhance absorption.
Vitamin D foods. It’s more difficult than the first two options, particularly if you have a serious deficiency, but you also can try increasing your consumption of vitamin D–rich foods. A few of these options include:
- Fatty fish, such as wild-caught cod and salmon
- Egg yolks
- Fortified foods such as milk, high-fiber cereal, and oatmeal
I hope these insights motivate you to test and raise your vitamin D levels, because they really can have an enormous effect on your quality of life. Maybe I’ll see you outside!
- Annweiler C and Beauchet O. Questioning vitamin D status of elderly fallers and nonfallers: a meta-analysis to address a ‘forgotten step’. J Intern Med. 2015 Jan;277(1):16–44.
- Meehan M and Penckofer S. The role of vitamin D in the aging adult. J Aging Gerontol. 2014 Dec; 2(2): 60–71.
- National Cancer Institute. “Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention.” Accessed February 19, 2017.
- Sepehrmanesh Z et al. Vitamin D supplementation affects the Beck Depression Inventory, insulin resistance, and biomarkers of oxidative stress in patients with major depressive disorder: A randomized, controlled clinical trial. J Nutr. 2016 Feb;146(2):243–8.
- Stewart R and Hirani V. Relationship between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in older residents from a national survey population. Psychosom Med. 2010 Sep;72(7):608–12.
- Tran B et al. Effect of vitamin D supplementation on antibiotic use: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. Jan 2014;99(1):156–61.
- von Essen MR et al. Vitamin D controls T cell antigen receptor signaling and activation of human T cells. Nat Immunol. 2010 Apr;11(4):344–9.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.