What are vitamins?
Vitamins are organic chemical compounds that organisms get from food. What is special about these compounds is that organisms’ bodies are able to produce them, but are not able to do so in adequate quantities for normal metabolism, hence the need to get additional amounts through foodstuff. If the body does not receive sufficient amounts of vitamins, deficiency diseases may develop.
There are two main types of vitamins – fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins.
These vitamins are stored in organisms’ livers and in fat tissues. They are absorbed through the intestinal tract. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body for long periods of time. Hence, there is no need to consume fat-soluble vitamins on a daily basis.
Examples of fat-soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, D, E and K. They are found mainly in fatty foods and animal products.
The important thing to note about water-soluble vitamins is that they are not stored in the body for very long; any excess water-soluble vitamins are quickly expelled from the body as a component of urine. As such, we need to replace the water-soluble vitamins in our bodies often to ensure that our bodies have a constant supply.
Examples of water-soluble vitamins include Vitamins C, B (i.e. all the B vitamins) and folic acid. They can be found in a wide variety of foods. For instance, dairy product, fruit, vegetables and grains all contain water-soluble vitamins. However, water-soluble vitamins are easily destroyed by heat, so cooking foods causes some vitamin loss.
Why should seniors and aging adults take vitamins?
People of all ages need vitamins, but they are especially important in the case of seniors and aging adults. This is due in most part to physiological changes linked to aging. This explains why organizations such as the Institute of Medicine have separate nutrient recommendations for people aged 70 and above; it is done in order to cater to the increased micronutrient requirements of this group of people.
When one ages, one faces decreased needs for energy intake. This is partly due to decreased physical activity level, hence requiring less food due to the lowered metabolic rate. Older persons may also face decreased appetites or have financial problems, rendering them unable to acquire adequate nutrient-dense foods (i.e. foods that have high levels of essential nutrients per food unit). For example, one study found that 50% to 75% of residents in German nursing homes have low energy intake. However, one’s requirements for micronutrients remain the same despite the decreased need for energy intake. In fact, an older person’s micronutrient requirement is, in some cases, even higher than that of a younger person (this will be explained later on). The reduced food intake is then unable to keep up with the constant (or increased) needs for micronutrients, even if the senior or aging adult consumes nutrient-dense foods.
Additionally, the ability of older adults’ bodies to absorb and utilize micronutrients is lower than that of a younger person’s. With less efficient absorption and utilization, it is crucial for older adults to have increased nutrient intake in order to ensure that the body is still receive sufficient amounts of micronutrients. As if all that were not enough, chronic conditions and medications can also affect nutrient requirements. A large percentage of older persons have to take medications for chronic conditions, and some of these medications cause nutrient wasting interactions, especially in the case of the Vitamin B family.
A study has shown that when an older person regularly uses supplements, his or her risk for having a nutrient intake below the Estimated Average Requirement is reduced by four times.
What happens if seniors and aging adults don’t get enough vitamins?
In general, when one is unable to meet the required levels of micronutrients, this results in the development of deficiency diseases. The types of health-related problems that arise from the deficiency of different micronutrients vary. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the problems that may arise from micronutrient deficiency:
According to the European Food Safety Authority, Vitamin E is an essential antioxidant for the human body. When one is deficient in Vitamin E, various chronic degenerative diseases can develop. The risks are especially high in the case of elderly persons. These degenerative diseases can affect many parts of the body, include the skeletal and muscular systems.
Central nervous system function disorders/Immune system disorders
The central nervous system metabolizes dopamine and noradrenaline. This process requires certain levels of Vitamins B2, B6 and B12. It also requires folate and Vitamin C. As such, if a person does not have enough of these micronutrients, the central nervous system will not be able to function properly. The synthesis of neurotransmitters and amino acids also require certain micronutrients.
The immune system will also be affected, causing the person to be more susceptible to common viruses and infections. In the case of seniors or aging adults, these seemingly minor illnesses could possibly lead to more major health complications.
Cognitive function disorders
The process of energy production in the brain depends heavily on several micronutrients. These include but are not limited to Vitamin B2, B6, B12 and C. These vitamins play an important role in the glycolysis and the respiratory chain.
Certain vitamins are also crucial for proper brain functioning. Insufficiencies may lead to age-related cognitive decline and, in extreme cases, Alzheimer’s disease.