Researchers believe that Americans -- especially those who are older -- are not always getting the vitamin D they need, exposing themselves to osteoporosis or thinning of the bones.
Vitamin D is made by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight and also is found in foods such as sardines, salmon and fortified milk. The nutrient makes calcium and phosphorus more available for bone mineralization. However, while calcium has received plenty of media attention recently, vitamin D has become a poor stepsister even though many researchers believe it is just as important as calcium. In fact, the body cannot absorb sufficient amounts of calcium without vitamin D.
People who have low blood levels of vitamin D are at an increased risk for fractures associated with osteoporosis and osteomalacia, the softening of the bones. Vitamin D also is needed to maintain strong, disease-resistant teeth as well as keep jaw bones that hold the teeth strong and healthy.
Older adults are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D because the body's mechanism for producing the nutrient from sunlight declines with age. In addition, older people often don't get outdoors as much as younger ones. Because vitamin D is stored in fat, younger and middle-age adults usually can rely on reserves built up during summer months to get through the winter.
Last year, the National Academy of Sciences increased the dietary reference intake for vitamin D from 200 International Units to 400 IU for people aged 51-70 and 600 IU for those aged 70 years and older. However, a recent study suggests that these levels still could be too low because vitamin D deficiency appears to be more prevalent than one previously thought.
In March 1998, Harvard researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that among 290 adults admitted to a Boston hospital for various reasons, 57 percent had blood levels of vitamin D that were insufficient for maintaining bone density. Even when the investigators looked at those aged 65 and younger who didn't have chronic conditions, such as kidney or liver disease, that increase the risk for vitamin D deficiency, they found that 42 percent of them had inadequate blood levels of vitamin D.
Milk fortified with vitamin D doesn't always contain consistent amounts of the vitamin. A study conducted by Boston University researchers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in the early 1990s, indicated that half of the milk samples they tested contained 50 percent or less of the government-required 400 IU of vitamin D per quart. Also, people may mistakenly believe that other dairy products such as yogurt, ice cream and cheese are fortified with vitamin D when none of them are.
"It is important that older Americans get adequate amounts of vitamin D to have strong, healthy bones," says Mark Robinson, D.D.S., a general dentist who practices on Chicago's South Side. "If you are an older person, discuss your concerns with your dentist and your physician. We can help you get additional supplements of vitamin D or any other vitamins or nutrients in order to live full, productive lives."
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