People are living longer, but their golden years are often marked by physical and mental decline. It is estimated that as many as 90% of seniors are deficient in Vitamin D, a critical nutrient for aging bodies and brains. Physicians frequently prescribe a vitamin D supplement, but fortified dairy foods contain a readily absorbable source of this nutrient, plus an overall nutrient package that may be more beneficial to bone, cardiovascular and cognitive health than a pill.
Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin, but many seniors spend less time in the sun, and the skin’s ability to synthesize vitamin D declines drastically with age. However, the intestinal absorption of Vitamin D does not decline, and so maintaining adequate dietary sources is critical. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased incidence of dementia, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, myocardial infarction, stroke, diabetes, hearing loss, loss of visual acuity and osteoporosis. Let’s explore some of these in more depth.
Low levels of D predict lower scores on cognitive function tests and higher levels of dementia. In addition to better cognitive performance, there is emerging evidence that Vitamin D can prevent neuronal death and actually help promote clearance of amyloids, the protein aggregates thought to play a significant role in various neurodegenerative disorders.
Hip fracture is one of the most devastating events that can happen to a senior. Peak bone mass is attained at the end of puberty, and the amount of that bone that is subsequently lost with aging determines fracture risk. One meta-analysis found that vitamin D supplementation at a dosage of 700-1000 IU per day reduced the risk of hip fracture by 18% and also reduced the incidence of falls in the senior population.
Vitamin D helps to maintain muscle mass and strength as well as bone health. Along with adequate protein, exercise and calcium, the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis and Osteoarthritis recommends adequate vitamin D intake of 800 IU per day to maintain serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels at 50nmol/L or greater for postmenopausal women.
Fortification of foods with Vitamin D is carefully regulated, and only a few categories of foods are allowed to fortify with D. Almost all dairy foods are eligible, but not all dairy manufacturers choose to fortify. The long-awaited new Nutrition Facts label will require listing of vitamin D if present, providing further opportunity for dairy to showcase this vital nutrient.
The recommended daily intake of Vitamin D is 800 I.U. for men and women over 70. An eight-ounce glass of milk contains 120 IU of Vitamin D, but most seniors consume only one to two servings of dairy per day. Meal replacement beverages provide potential for higher fortification, as they are allowed to contain up to 500 IU per 250 ML. Margarine and certain cheeses can also be fortified with vitamin D.
Yogurt is an underutilized category for vitamin D fortification. According to their website, Yoplait is the only leading yogurt with calcium and vitamin D.
“People age 65 and older are most likely to consume traditional light yogurt and large size yogurt,” said Susan Pitt, marketing manager, General Mills – Yoplait U.S.
Fruit juice drinks are also allowed to fortify with vitamin D. A Harris Poll on behalf of Pfizer found that 87% of Americans have at least one fear when they think about getting older. Those fears include decline in physical ability, memory loss, getting a chronic disease and running out of money. These concerns highlight a need for healthy, convenient and wellness solutions. BASF created a prototype beverage called “FOGO (Fear of Getting Older)” Tropical Drink. It’s a delicious juice packed with nutrients including lycopene, omega-3s, beta-carotene and vitamins A, C, D and E, and appeals to seniors interested in maintaining their quality of life.
Dairy-based functional food and beverages are typically processed very similarly to their traditional dairy counterparts.
“Nutritional ingredients can be easily added along with other powdered constituents such as sugars, stabilizers, cocoa, etc. In the case of lipid based nutritionals, incorporation into the oil portion of the formulation is done. Simply blending into the oil and following standard processing conditions is all that is required,” said Charles Barber, head of science, regulatory, applications and quality, BASF Human Nutrition, North America.
Good nutrition earlier in life can help stave off physical and cognitive decline in senior years. Adequate intake of vitamin D in young children increase cognitive abilities and enhance cognitive reserves, carrying seniors into a state of healthy aging.