Nutrition Needed Throughout Aging Process

Physical changes, medications, hospitalizations, and social factors can put older adults at risk of malnutrition which makes other health problems worse. Consequently, fortifying food is as important for the aging population as it is for children's development and for women who may become pregnant.

An aging population has many implications for a country’s economy and health system, and aging increases the likelihood of individuals having a chronic disease. Heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis are a few of the illnesses that people are more likely to experience as older adults than as youth. Proper nutrition plays a role in preventing diseases, and good nutrition contributes to quality of life and lessens the disease’s effects.

Iron and Zinc

The recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron and zinc varies as people age, but both minerals are needed throughout the lifespan. How much iron a person needs daily depends partly on the source of their iron intake. If the iron is highly bioavailable, meaning that it is easy for the body to absorb, less iron is needed than if it has low bioavailability. Animal foods have the most bioavailable forms of iron. People who eat limited amounts of animal foods may need more iron than they consume from unfortified foods. Iron is needed for productivity and zinc is needed for healthy immune systems. Both iron and zinc deficiencies can cause anemia.

Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)

The RDI of folic acid (vitamin B9) is 400 micrograms of folic acid for all adult men and women. This amount of vitamin B9 is nearly impossible to consume daily from unfortified food alone. This nutrient helps people produce and maintain healthy cells and prevent anemia from vitamin B9 deficiency.

One neurologist’s research shows that in older adults, “vitamin B9 deficiency contributes to ageing brain processes, increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia and, if critically severe, can lead to a reversible dementia.”

Also, people need vitamins B9, B6 and B12 to lower homocysteine levels. This is important because elevated homocysteine levels are associated with dementia, heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 maintains functions of the brain and nervous system. The need for vitamin B12 for men and for women who are not pregnant or lactating remains constant through adulthood. Some people have trouble absorbing vitamin B12. This nutrient is found in animal-source foods, and vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause anemia.

Calcium

Calcium is needed for healthy bones. The mineral is also necessary for performing key tasks, such as transmitting nerve messages, enhancing muscle function, and clotting blood. The RDI for calcium remains at 1,300 micrograms per day for women from age 51 years through the rest of their lives. For men, the RDI increases from 1,000 micrograms per day from 19 to 65 years to 1,300 micrograms per day after 65 years.

Vitamin A

For adults, vitamin A is important for normal vision, immunity, reproduction, and proper functioning of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs. Though too much vitamin A can be dangerous, the daily “recommended safe intake” for women increases from 500 micrograms of retinol equivalents per day from 50 to 65 years to 600 micrograms of retinol equivalents per day after 65 years. The recommended safe intake for men remains at 600 micrograms of retinol equivalents from age 19 years through the rest of the life span.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 facilitates enzyme reactions involved in metabolism and assists with immune function. It is also one of the vitamins that prevents the accumulation of homocysteine. A woman’s RDI of vitamin B6 remains at 1.5 micrograms per day from 50 years of age throughout the rest of her life. For men, the RDI after 50 is to 1.7 micrograms per day. Poultry, fish, potatoes, and non-citric fruit are good sources of vitamin B6. People in countries where diverse foods are not accessible or affordable may have vitamin B6 deficiency and would benefit from foods being fortified with vitamin B6.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is sometimes called the sunshine vitamin because people produce it when their skin is exposed to sunlight. People who mostly stay indoors, including some elderly people with limited mobility, are more likely to develop vitamin D deficiency. Women’s RDI for vitamin D increases from 10 micrograms per day from 50 to 65 years to 15 micrograms per day after 65 years. For men, the RDI for vitamin D increases from 5 micrograms per day from 19 to 50 years to 15 micrograms per day after 50 years.

Vitamin D is essential for bone health because it helps people absorb calcium. As a result, vitamin D deficiency in adults contributes to osteoporosis, which is marked by weak and brittle bones. This often leads to broken bones, most often of the wrist, spine, and hip. Women of Asian and Caucasian descent are more prone to osteoporosis than other ethnic groups, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.

  • To see which nutrients a specific country requires in mandates for wheat flour, maize flour, or rice fortification, see its country profile.
  • See the Global Fortification Data Exchange (GFDx) to learn which nutrients are in country standards for grains as well as edible oil and salt. On the right panel, select the food of interest and the nutrients of interest. Below the GFDx map is a table with information used to populate the map. Below the table, scroll over the download button and click on CSV to download a file with the selected data. If a country has multiple foods that include the nutrient in the standard, the country will appear multiple times in the downloaded file.

Top Photo Credit: Adam Cohn @Flickr Creative Commons

Good nutrition is needed throughout the lifespan. Fortifying grains helps ensure that people of all ages increase their nutrient intake.

Success Stories

  • Fortifying with folic acid has nearly eliminated anemia from vitamin B9 deficiency among older adults in the United States. Most of the wheat flour, maize flour, and rice there is fortified with folic acid.
  • In a geriatric healthcare facility in Japan, 28 of 68 residents were deficient in vitamin B9. They were given rice that was fortified with folic acid, and within 6 months, none of them had this deficiency.
  • In Australia, homocysteine levels were significantly reduced among people older than 65 years after wheat flour was fortified with vitamin B9 (folic acid).