If you think of vitamins as the chewable cartoon characters of childhood or overhyped by the supplement industry, you may wonder if they really matter. The answer: Yes, in a big way.
Humans can’t survive without the 14 vitamins — A, C, D, E, K, choline and B complex — and 15 minerals. Fortunately, our bodies are designed to extract the nutrients we need from the food we eat.
Most people can get all the vitamins and minerals needed from a diet of vegetables, fruit, protein, dairy, healthy oils and whole grains.
But “most people” is not everyone. After age 50 the absorption of some vitamins begins a slow decline. A system that works like a well-oiled machine at 50 may continue to do so or it may be squeaking by at 65 or 75. Along with age, vitamin deficits can also be caused or exacerbated by a number of issues, including:
- Some medications
- Diminished appetite
- Forgetting to eat due to memory loss or depression
- Poor food choices
- Food insecurity
- Too much alcohol
So how can you tell if the person for whom you care has a vitamin deficit?
You can’t. The only way to find a vitamin shortage is a lab test.
The signs of low vitamin levels can be subtle and seem unrelated, or dramatic and still seem unrelated. Serious symptoms — including pain, memory loss and a downturn in cognitive function — may be falsely attributed to normal aging or an already diagnosed illness.
And the consequences of a vitamin deficiency can be serious. For example:
- A vitamin D deficit can cause cognitive impairment and raise the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
- Too little folate (B9), vitamin B12 and vitamin C can cause vitamin deficiency anemia, a condition that can cause weight loss, muscle weakness, personality changes, unsteady movements, confusion and forgetfulness.
- A severe B12 deficit can mimic dementia.
Sometimes a single change in the body — one that seems unrelated to vitamin levels — can interfere with vitamin absorption and launch a domino effect, triggering symptoms that can lead to a misdiagnosis.
For example: Ten to 30 percent of Americans over age 50 don’t produce enough stomach acid. While that may sound great to heartburn sufferer, stomach acid is key to absorbing vitamin B12, a powerhouse that helps produce red blood cells and DNA, and maintain nerves.
The result: People without enough stomach acid, and the many more who take medication to suppress heartburn, are courting a B12 deficiency, a shortage that can produce a variety of symptoms, including:
“prickly” feet, impaired cognitive ability, muscle weakness, loss of taste and smell, shakiness, low blood pressure, incontinence, hallucinations, paranoia, confusion and psychosis.
Take away tips:
- The best way to get vitamins is through food.
- If you suspect your loved one’s vitamin levels are low, talk to the doctor about ordering lab tests.
- Never add supplements without a medical OK.
- Too much of certain vitamins can harm the body or promote a different risk.
- Some supplements interfere with prescribed medications.
- Know the difference. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the average daily intake of nutrients needed to keep 98 percent of healthy people healthy. The Daily Value (DV) is the percentage of necessary vitamins provided in a single serving, based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. For example, a medium carrot contains 6 percent of the vitamin C you need for a day.