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Common Nutritional Deficiencies in the Elderly

It is difficult to imagine that in a world where we have a plethora of food choices, doctors would still be grappling with nutritional deficiencies. But the sad truth is that nutritional deficiencies are more common than most people think. And the sadder reality is that the elderly are more at risk for a variety of reasons when it comes to nutritional deficiencies. It is extremely important to be mindful of nutrient levels as we age.

In this article, we will explore the common nutritional deficiencies in the elderly, the reasons behind them, and what we can do about it.

Reasons Behind Common Nutritional Deficiencies in the Elderly

When we think of food and grocery, we picture aisles upon aisles and overflowing shelves filled with fresh, inexpensive produce. Indeed, the food choices and variety available to us today have never been available in our history. Then why are, paradoxically, doctors seeing an increase in nutritional deficiency cases?

The reasons below are common to everyone, though we see, they have a magnified impact among the elderly.

Modern Agricultural Practices

Despite modern farmers having access to top-notch fertilizers, fruits and vegetables grown today have less nutrient quality than 30 years ago. The reason for this is that our intensive agricultural practices over the years have significantly reduced the natural fertility of our soils.

Modern agricultural practices can lead to reduced nutrients in the final produce

Modern agricultural practices can lead to reduced nutrients in the final produce

Plants grown today are being bred specifically from the point of view of their yield (how much can one plant produce), looks (color, texture), and speed of growth (how long does it take for the plant to start producing). Nowhere is the focus on the nutrient level of the produce. Naturally, every successive generation of the juicy watermelon that you eat has less nutrient value.

Another culprit in declining nutritional value in our produce is the use of chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. It is a catch-22 situation. There is no way today to feed a world population of over 7 billion without using fertilizers and pesticides. But the truth is that these chemicals help produce more weight of produce per acre under cultivation, not necessarily more healthy produce.

The overall result is that what we are eating may look healthy but in reality, it is nutrient deficient.

Seniors often have a difficult time maintaining a balanced diet due to age-related changes. They often rely on convenient, prepackaged foods because they live alone, have restricted mobility, and/or live on fixed incomes which can limit food purchasing options. As our bodies age, we also experience decreased appetite due to hormones that decrease our appetite, fewer neurotransmitters that increase appetite, and decreased activity levels.

Stress

Our lives have become increasingly stressful. Stress causes the body to become less efficient in nutrient absorption. Paradoxically, when we are under stress, our bodies need more nutrients. This gets us into a downward spiral very quickly. You may look at your dinner plate and think that you are having a balanced meal, but if you are constantly under stress, those nutrients may be passing right through your body.

Seniors are especially susceptible to stressful events such as the loss of family and friends, decreased independence, less opportunity for social interaction, and major lifestyle transitions. We can publish an entire book about how to deal with stress but basically, you need to prioritize your mental health as much as your physical health. Meditation, breathing exercises, spending quality time with friends, family and pets, laughing and reducing stimulant intake (caffeine, nicotine etc) are known stress-busters.

Being with pets can be a stress buster

Being with pets can be a stress buster

Diet and Emerging Trends

Every few years, we see the emergence of a new trend in popular diets. While not all of these trends are negative, any drastic change in diet needs to be seen holistically.

  • The Vegan Diet – If you have been consuming animal products in moderation and move to a completely vegan diet, you run the risk of becoming Vitamin B12 deficient. Vegan diets can be beneficial for overall health, but you should be aware that vegan products can be naturally devoid of Vitamin B12. One way to combat this is by adding Vitamin B12 fortified products to your diet, such as soy milk or Vitamin B12 fortified cereals. You can also choose to take Vitamin B12 supplements.
  • The Ketogenic Diet – If you are following a Ketogenic diet, you run the risk of consuming too much fat and not enough fibre. This can impact your bowel movements and the absorption of several nutrients.

Seniors are more likely to experience the negative effects of these diet trends, and that’s why it’s essential to talk to a healthcare provider before making big changes to your diet.

Leaky Gut Leading to Reduced Nutrient Absorption

Our body’s digestive system transforms the food that you eat to the individual nutrients that are needed by the body. These nutrients are processed through the “good” bacteria that live in our stomach and intestines. If you are regularly consuming a carbohydrate-rich diet, the gut bacteria will have a tough time helping the digestive process. In serious cases, this condition can lead to inflammation in the gut, hampering the absorption of nutrients. Leaky gut can trigger an immune reaction and even lead to autoimmune issues. Digestion becomes less efficient as we age which makes these types of nutrient deficiencies more likely in older adults.

Regular Medication

Several medications can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients or leech nutrients from your body faster than usual. Always discuss the dietary implications of long (and short) term medication before starting a new regimen. You might need to supplement or make adjustments to your diet to compensate for the body’s reduced nutrition absorption ability. Seniors tend to take more prescription medications than younger adults which makes these deficiencies more common in older populations.

As you can see, anyone can become nutritionally deficient. But as we grow older, the ability of our body to process and absorb food reduces, exacerbating the situation. Fortunately, there are many ways to optimize our diet and our bodies even as we age. Now, let us explore some common nutritional deficiencies in the elderly.

Regular medication can commonly cause nutritional deficiencies in the elderly

Regular medication can cause reduced nutrition absorption

Common Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Avoid Them

Calcium

Calcium is important for maintaining bone health and nerve function. Calcium deficiency is common among the elderly. Calcium requirements may increase with age due to decreased hormone levels and their impact on bone density.

Calcium deficiency can lead to a loss in bone density, decreased mobility, and increased risk of falls. Symptoms of calcium deficiency can also include memory loss, muscle spasms or cramps, mood changes, and brittle nails. Calcium is found in dark leafy greens, dairy products, bone-in fish, nuts and seeds, beans, and lentils.

B Vitamins

Deficiency in one or more of the B Vitamins can cause symptoms of fatigue, mental confusion, poor immune function, nervous system dysfunction, anemia, and changes in hair, skin, and nails. B Vitamins are typically found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meats, greens, and legumes. People over the age of 50 are more likely to be deficient and require supplementation although most people can prevent deficiency with a balanced, whole foods diet.

Magnesium

This mineral plays a vital role in regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, muscle and bone function, and sleep cycles. Deficiency can be related to muscle cramps and twitches, mental health concerns including anxiety and depression, osteoporosis, hypertension, asthma, and cardiovascular disorders. Magnesium is found in nuts and seeds as well as whole grains, beans and legumes, green vegetables, and dark chocolate.

Supplementation can be beneficial in some people, however, the right form and dose can vary between individuals based on their age, medication use and desired health outcomes, so it is important to consult a professional before beginning any new supplement regimen.

Vitamin D3

It is estimated that about 42% of Americans and 40% of Canadians are deficient in Vitamin D3 (the sunshine vitamin). A larger percentage of the North American population is likely functioning at sub-optimal levels. Vitamin D3 is produced through the interaction of UV light with the surface of the skin, so although there are some food sources including mushrooms, fatty fish and fortified dairy products, adequate levels can be difficult to maintain through diet alone due to our northern climate and lack of consistent sun exposure for a large part of the year.

Exposure to sunlight produces Vitamin D3

Exposure to sunlight produces Vitamin D3 (image source https://www.health.mil/News/Gallery/Photos/2017/06/26/Eating-vitamin-D)

A good quality supplement is often helpful in achieving and maintaining optimal Vitamin D3 levels and supplements should be in an oil-based (gel cap or liquid) medium for optimal absorption. It is important to have your Vitamin D3 levels tested yearly to ensure you have enough but also not too much. Since Vitamin D3 is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is possible to overdose at higher levels which can present as heart disease or kidney stones due to excessive calcium absorption.

There are several factors that increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies as we age however it is possible to prevent the negative health consequences of these inadequacies with a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, quality proteins, and whole grains. Being conscious of your nutrient intake and incorporating a variety of whole foods daily is your best way to prevent deficiencies and ensure your body has the fuel it needs to live and long and healthy life.

If you suspect you might have a nutrient deficiency, talk to your healthcare provider about ordering the appropriate tests to find out exactly where your levels are and what changes you might need to make. We hope that this article on

Dr. Nicole Panethere, ND can be reached at nicole@nicolepanethere.com

We hope that you found our article on common nutritional deficiencies in the elderly, useful. If you are looking for more information on wellness for the elderly, you can read our articles on are treadmills safe for the elderly and are weighted blankets safe for the elderly.

Dr Nicole is a naturopathic doctor practicing in Whitby Ontario with a clinical focus in digestive health, chronic pain management and inflammatory conditions. She utilizes a variety of natural modalities in her practice, but believes the food we eat is the most important tool for restoring health and wellness. Her goal as a practitioner is to make health achievable for all, no matter their struggles and challenges, and she works with patients of all walks of life to create long-term change that is sustainable and realistic. She believes health doesn’t have to be complicated and small changes can have a huge impact. Dr. Nicole is a graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto. She completed her clinical internship at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic and Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic. She has developed a strong interest in pain management, weight loss and digestive health, as well as prevention and treatment of chronic disease.