Ask the Expert: Getting Enough Vitamin D in Later Life

Jeannie Lee

Jeannie K Lee, PharmD, BCPS, BCGP, FASHP
Assistant Dean of Student Services & Associate Professor
University of Arizona College of Pharmacy

Q:  Why is it important for older adults to get enough vitamin D?

A:  Vitamin D plays key roles in your bone health. It helps your body absorb and use calcium, a mineral you need to keep your bones strong. If you don’t continue to get enough vitamin D and calcium in later life, your bones can become thinner and weaker and can break or fracture more easily.

Regular physical activity and exercise are the most important ways to keep your muscles strong so you can stay active and continue all your daily activities. In addition to exercise, vitamin D plays an important role in keeping your muscles strong. When your muscles are stronger, you are less likely to fall and have a bone fracture.

Q:  How can you get vitamin D?

A:  You can get vitamin D in several ways.

Vitamin D is called the “sunlight vitamin” because your skin can make the vitamin when it is exposed to the sun. But as you get older, your skin’s ability to produce vitamin D from sun declines, while the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure continues. Therefore, sunblock should be worn when going out in the sun, and you should obtain Vitamin D from food sources or supplements.

Fatty fish such as swordfish, salmon, and mackerel are naturally rich in vitamin D. You can also get vitamin D from milk, yogurt, cereals, and juices that have been fortified with vitamin D. That means that vitamin D is added to these foods and drinks. If a food is fortified with vitamin D, the label will say that.

You can also get vitamin D from vitamin supplements. There are products that contain both calcium and vitamin D. Because calcium-vitamin D tablets are quite large and may be difficult to swallow, chewable products might be easier to take.

Q:  How much vitamin D do adults who are 65 and older need?

A:  The American Geriatrics Society brought together a workgroup of expert researchers and clinicians to answer this and related questions about vitamin D. The group carefully reviewed the latest, high-quality research about the vitamin D needs of people 65 years old and older.

Based on their findings, the workgroup recommended that healthcare providers tell their older patients to take at least 1,000 International (IU) units of vitamin D daily—along with calcium supplements—to lower their risks of fractures.

The workgroup also noted that older adults can safely get an average of  4,000 IU/day from all sources—sunlight, foods, fortified foods and drinks, and supplements—daily.  This is the maximum daily intake that is recommended.  This higher intake of vitamin D is a safe way to ensure that older adults have vitamin D levels that can lower their risk of fall-related fractures. 

Last Updated June 2019

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