What’s the right amount of vitamin D for you?

Created date

July 24th, 2019
Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.

Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.

Vitamin D is essential to bone health and healthy aging, yet many Americans are vitamin D deficient. Estimates from a number of studies demonstrate that up to 50% of seniors have inadequate levels of this vitamin, which is so vitally important to our bones, muscle strength, and overall health and well-being.

Seniors are at a higher risk of having insufficient amounts of vitamin D because of the unique characteristics of this vitamin’s metabolism. Remarkably enough, vitamin D is either made in the skin with sun exposure or ingested in the foods we eat. Once present in the bloodstream, it then has to be processed by the liver and kidneys to achieve full effectiveness. As we age, our skin and kidneys in particular undergo changes, which tend to make the process less effective, and we become more reliant on dietary sources or supplements. 

The challenge is that, unlike many vitamins that are present in sufficient amounts in the foods we eat, it can be very difficult to achieve an adequate intake of vitamin D to avoid deficiency. Foods like milk, tuna fish, and yogurt only have about 100 international units (IU) per serving. The general consensus among experts is that seniors need about 800 IU a day. This is why so many, in fact, have a mild or moderate deficiency and why it may make sense to take a supplement.

When you’re vitamin D deficient

While expert opinions vary on the value of vitamin D testing and the overall impact of supplements on health, there is a clear understanding that deficiency is associated with a number of medical conditions, particularly osteoporosis and muscle weakness. Recommendations with regard to evaluation and treatment must take into consideration your unique situation, and your medical provider can help guide you on the best approach given your individual circumstances. 

If you’re active, have regular sun exposure year-round, and are in good health, the recommendation may simply be to take a supplement of 600 to 1,000 IU a day. If like many, you have minimal sun exposure and are at risk for osteoporosis, falls, and frailty, it may make sense to have a blood level of vitamin D measured (called a serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D level) and then supplement your diet based upon the result. While there is much discussion and lack of clarity about the optimal level of vitamin D, most experts agree on the level needed to avoid deficiency. 

Your medical provider can guide you through this discussion on the type and amount of supplement that is appropriate for you. Doses higher than 800 IU may be needed if you have moderate to severe deficiency. Always remember, though, that vitamin D is not completely harmless, and very high doses in some studies have been associated with potentially harmful effects. It can also interact with some medications, so be sure to discuss the right approach for you with your medical provider. 

Vitamin D is essential to good health and well-being, but like so many areas of medicine, we still have much to learn about the best approach. Please have the discussion with your medical provider and together make the decision that best suits your needs.

In good health,

Dr. Narrett

Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.

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