The new study conducted by nutrition researchers at the university noted that nutrient deficiencies are making the elderly more vulnerable to chronic health problems such as osteoporosis, anemia and cognitive impairment.
"We always say 'food first' because eating a wide variety of foods provides the best source of minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. But people don't always eat a balanced diet, and vitamin supplements are convenient, relatively inexpensive and some have shown definite benefits in preventing or reducing the risks of chronic disease,” said Mary Ann Johnson, professor of foods and nutrition in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and coauthor of the study.
Published in the Journal of Nutrition for the Elderly, the study was designed to contribute to health promotion programs at over 200 senior centers across Georgia. These aim to prevent malnutrition and provide nutritionally balanced meals to low-income elderly.
According to the researchers, the vitamin D, calcium and B12 deficiencies observed may negatively impact bone, blood and nervous system health.
In adults, it is said vitamin D deficiency may precipitate or exacerbate osteopenia, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, fractures, common cancers, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases and cardiovascular diseases. There is also some evidence that the vitamin may reduce the incidence of several types of cancer and type 1 diabetes.
Previously, experts have noted that about one billion people are estimated to be vitamin D deficient, even more so since very few foods are fortified with the vitamin.
Vitamin B12 levels are important as low levels of the vitamin have been linked to increased risk of cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. After age 50, people do not absorb B12 as efficiently, and it is estimated that up to 25 per cent of the elderly may be B12 deficient.
In the diet, B12 comes from meat, fish, dairy, other animal products, and fortified breakfast cereals. Vegetarians and vegans are also at risk of B12 deficiency.
Calcium is important for bone health, and is also thought to help maintain normal heart and muscle function, and to help the blood clot normally.
Calcium-rich foods in the diet, include milk and dairy products, kale and collard greens. However, the body loses calcium through sweat, urine, feces, hair, and nails, and if dietary intake levels are insufficient, the body pulls calcium from bones.
Cumulative poor nutrition
According to a survey conducted by the UGA researchers, 60 percent of Georgian adults over the age of 60 take some type of dietary supplement. Around 40 percent reported taking multivitamin and mineral supplements.
However, many people remain confused about the benefits of the supplements, and about which nutrients are most important.
While the science backing some vitamins and minerals may be conflicting – and therefore contributes to this confusion – the authors of the study said that the benefits of taking certain supplements, especially calcium and vitamin D, are well-documented.
"By the time people reach their elder years, the cumulative effects of lifestyle really start to show, good or bad," said Johnson.
"Part of the problem is that we need research that demonstrates the costs of poor nutrition and poor lifestyle. For example, many cases of diabetes and its complications are preventable. Nutrition is a science, but it doesn't get the attention it deserves. We're making progress, but we have a long way to go."