We all hope that as we age, our ability to live in our own homes independently is a dream that will be a reality. Unfortunately one of the more common reasons why the elderly have to give up that dream is the increased risk of falling, leading to fractures, disability and loss of independence. However, the sun and a vital nutrient in our food can possibly change that. Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, appears to play a significant role in helping to prevent falls. Studies have shown this fat-soluble vitamin seems to maintain muscle strength, which is critical in preserving confidence in day-to-day activities and lessening the fear of falling that could result in significant physical injury.
The problem of falls in the elderly is common. For people aged 65 or older, one out of every three will experience falling at some point. In 2013, 2.5 million nonfatal falls occurred in elderly adults that often resulted in head traumas, lacerations and hip fractures, and around 25,500 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries. Hip fractures occur at a rate of more than 258,000 each year with over 95 percent being caused by falls. The majority of falls are preventable, and when the elderly have sufficient vitamin D, it could be a major key to help lower this risk.
Why older adults are at risk for vitamin D deficiency
People age 50 and older are at risk for vitamin D deficiency and this risk increases with age for several reasons:
“Vitamin D is an essential nutrient when it comes to maintaining bone health, which would also relate to keeping our muscles strong,” said Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption. This vitamin is normally made by the body through sunlight exposure and can also be found in foods such as egg yolks, liver and fish. In general, salmon is known to be a vitamin D powerhouse. It is rich in vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids which have also been shown to improve bone density.”
How to know if you are vitamin D deficient
The best indicator of vitamin D status is a blood test of your serum concentration of 25(OH)D also called 25-hydroxyvitamin D. This reflects vitamin D produced cutaneously and obtained from food or supplements, but it does not indicate the amount stored in body tissues. Older adults who have fallen have been shown to have lower serum 25(OH)D concentrations.
Your doctor can test for vitamin D status. The normal range for vitamin D is 30 ng/ml and higher. The Endocrine Society’s guidelines for vitamin D deficiency is: less than 20 ng/ml is considered vitamin D deficiency, and 21-29 ng/ml is considered vitamin D insufficiency.
Other indications of a vitamin D deficiency include certain symptoms, such as muscle pain and weakness, muscle cramps, joint pain, restless sleep, poor concentration and chronic pain.
What is the daily requirement for vitamin D?
Here is the daily requirement for vitamin D as established by the Institute of Medicine which was updated in 2010:
Why is vitamin D important in preventing falls?
There is much evidence through many studies showing that vitamin D deficiency appears to contribute to increased falls in the elderly. Deficiencies in vitamin D lead can lead to weaker quadriceps muscles in the thighs and muscle weakness in general, slower reaction time, reduced stability, and an overall slower performance in functioning. When this is combined with weak bones or osteoporosis, it is only a matter of time before a person is likely to experience a fall.
How to treat a vitamin D deficiency
A treatment guideline should be established by your physician depending on your serum concentration of 25(OH)D. There can be several ways that a deficiency of vitamin D can be treated:
“As a physician, I recommend changes in lifestyle first, then medication as a second line of defense, only if necessary,” Dr. Samadi advised. “Supplements like vitamin D3 and calcium are all important for maintaining healthy bones and muscle strength and a good alternative for those whose diet alone is not sufficient. But starting with what you eat is an important first step.”
Aging is a fact of life and the longer we live, the more important it becomes to be aware of certain nutrients that can make our lives go a little smoother. Vitamin D is one of those nutrients, and if it truly helps with reducing the risk of falls in the elderly, leading to greater independence and a healthier life, we’ll all be better off for it.