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Hit the Beach, Granny

Elderly get too little of the sunshine vitamin, says study

TUESDAY, May 15 (HealthScout) -- Even though nursing homes and hospitals give elderly patients vitamin D supplements, the amount may be too little, finds a new study.

"We suspected the problem is much bigger than recognized," says study author Dr. Rajesh Garg of the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Vitamin D helps the body metabolize calcium, sometimes improving absorption by as much as 80 percent, says the Osteoporosis Society of Canada. Inadequate calcium can lead to muscle weakness and osteoporosis, making the elderly, in particular, more prone to fractures.

The vitamin is found naturally in fatty fish and fish oils and often is added to milk. A big source of vitamin D, however, is exposure to sunlight, which causes the body to produce vitamin D.

Garg and his colleagues studied 13 women and 5 men who were either homebound or in a nursing home. Their average age was 77, and they had various ailments, including osteoarthritis, stroke, heart disease and dementia.

"To my surprise, 16 out of 18 patients had low vitamin D levels," even those receiving vitamin D supplements, says Garg.

Garg, who presented his findings at the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists annual meeting this month, suggests that elderly patients, especially those who don't spend much time in the sun, get higher doses of the vitamin.

"It's a problem that's not really well documented. Tests for vitamin D are not done as a routine lab tests in nursing homes or hospitals," says Vincent Giambanco, a certified geriatric practitioner and the director of pharmacy at the Jewish Home and Hospital in New York City.

Because most care givers assume their older patients are vitamin D deficient, they routinely give patients supplements, but not enough, says Giambanco.

What To Do

Make sure you' get enough vitamin D in your diet. If not, take a supplement. And, if you have loved ones in a nursing home, make sure they're getting as much vitamin D as they need.

The recommended daily intake for ages 19 to 50 is 200 international units (I.U.), 400 I.U. for those 51 to 69, and 600 I.U. for people over 70.

For more information on vitamin D, read this article from the National Institutes of Health or this one from the Osteoporosis Society of Canada which looks at how vitamin D is essential for bone health.

Or, read these HealthScout articles on vitamin D.

SOURCES: Interviews with Rajesh Garg, M.D., resident, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Vincent Giambanco, R.P.H., C.G.P., director of pharmacy, The Jewish Home and Hospital, New York City; abstract from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists annual meeting, May 3-5, 2001
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