Eating for Longevity: Preventing Nutrient Deficiencies in Older Adults

Preventing Nutrient Deficiencies in Older Adults

As a person grows old, their body undergoes several alterations that have an adverse impact on their health and way of living. Among these changes, nutrition is especially significant in later life, as it has a crucial role in determining the quality of life, encompassing physical, mental, and social well-being

Seniors, in particular, may be at higher risk of developing nutrient deficiencies, which can impact their overall health and longevity. Hence, a balanced and nutrient-rich diet is crucial for seniors to prevent these deficiencies and maintain their health. 

In this topic, we will discuss some important nutrients that seniors should focus on and provide tips for incorporating them into their diets to promote longevity and overall well-being.

Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Older Adults

It’s common knowledge that the human body undergoes many changes as we grow older, which can affect most of our bodily functions, including our ability to absorb nutrients.

The decrease in our ability to absorb necessary nutrients can lead to deficiencies that affect overall health. Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies in older adults are;

  1. Calcium: Calcium is a mineral that contributes to bone density and strength, and a deficiency may worsen mobility and increase the risk of fall-related injuries.

How to reach your goal: To increase calcium intake, consuming three servings daily of low-fat dairy products such as milk is recommended. Other good sources of calcium include kale, broccoli, and calcium-fortified juices. Calcium-rich foods are the best way to meet your daily requirement for this mineral.

  1. Vitamin D: Vitamin D is crucial in improving bone density in conjunction with calcium. 

How to reach your goal: To increase vitamin D intake, fortified foods like cereals, milk, some yogurts, and juices can be consumed. Vitamin D can also be found naturally in salmon, tuna, and eggs. 

As the recommended level of vitamin D for optimal health is still under debate, many experts recommend older people take vitamin D supplements, as the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight decreases with age. Therefore, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider.

  1. Magnesium: Magnesium impacts specific body processes, including blood pressure regulation.

How to reach your goal: To increase magnesium intake, consuming unprocessed foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans, and seeds is recommended.

  1. Vitamin C: Contains antioxidants and affects wound healing and protein absorption.

How to reach your goal: To avoid a deficiency in Vitamin C, it is possible to consume the recommended quantity of fresh produce like citrus fruits, bell peppers, and tomatoes or take the prescribed amount of Vitamin C in daily supplements.

  1. Vitamin B6: It is essential for protein absorption and can impact cognitive functioning. 

How to reach your goal: To ensure sufficient intake, one can consume rich sources of vitamin B6 like fish, beef liver, organ meats, potatoes, starchy vegetables, and certain fruits. In the United States, adults typically get most of their dietary vitamin B6 from fortified cereals, beef, poultry, starchy vegetables, and select non-citrus fruits.

  1. Vitamin E: It is well-known for its antioxidant properties and is crucial in supporting the immune system.

How to reach your goal: To increase Vitamin E intake, one can consume vegetable oils like wheat germ, sunflower, and safflower, as they are some of the best sources. Corn and soybean oils also contain some vitamin E. Nuts such as peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and seeds like sunflower seeds are rich sources of vitamin E.

  1. Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is necessary to create new blood cells and optimize the functionality of the nervous system.

How to reach your goal: To increase B12 intake, one can consume more vitamin-rich foods, such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. It is advisable to consult a doctor to determine whether taking a B12 supplement is necessary.

  1. Folate: Vitamin B9, commonly known as folate, is crucial in producing red and white blood cells. A deficiency of folate in older adults may lead to anemia.

How to reach your goal: Nowadays, breakfast cereals are fortified with folate, which has reduced the frequency of deficiencies. However, individuals who do not consume adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, or breakfast cereals are advised to consult their doctor regarding folate supplements.

  1. Potassium: Potassium is beneficial for the health of our bones and blood pressure and reduces the risk of kidney stones. 

How to reach your goal: Fruits and vegetables are the richest sources of dietary potassium. Foods such as bananas, prunes, plums, and potatoes with their skin are especially high in potassium. Consuming fruits and vegetables with every meal can ensure a sufficient potassium intake. Before taking potassium supplements, seeking advice from a doctor is recommended. It is important to note that low and high potassium levels can harm one’s health.

  1. Fiber: The presence of fiber in our diet is crucial as it impacts food movement through our digestive system and lowers the risk of heart disease.

How to reach your goal: To increase fiber intake, one can consume more whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Adding cranberry sauce to turkey and whole wheat bread sandwiches or dividing snacks like pumpkin seeds, nuts, blueberries, or chopped vegetables into small bags and refrigerating them can be a creative way to achieve this goal. Moreover, consulting a doctor about taking fiber supplements can also be beneficial.

  1. Omega 3: Omega-3 fatty acids slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and macular degeneration and improve cognitive health.

How to reach your goal: Experts recommend consuming at least two servings of fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel, in a week to increase Omega-3 intake. Some vegetarian sources of Omega-3 include soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil. While Omega-3 supplements are available, it is important to consult a doctor before taking them.

Risk Factors of Nutritional Deficiencies in Older Adults

Dietary nutrient deficiency in older adults is a common issue worldwide, with varying degrees of deficiencies from person to person. The following are some key causes of deficiencies:

  • Inadequate intake of nutrients and dietary consumption of food.
  • Physiological changes related to aging including forgetfulness and loss of appetite.
  • Cognitive impairments and forgetfulness.
  • Financial limitations due to a reduced or fixed income may limit food intake.
  • Medication side effects may affect the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients or interact with certain vitamins and minerals.
  • Gastrointestinal issues resulting from a GI tract infection or surgical procedure.
  • Tobacco smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Hormonal and neurotransmitter changes affect hunger and satiety signals.

As older adults experience physical, physiological, and cognitive changes, poor dietary habits can contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, and malnutrition. Inadequate nutrition can result in a decline in overall quality of life, including decreased physical and cognitive functions. 

Furthermore, older adults may experience decreased bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis, a loss of muscle mass and strength, and decreased resistance to diseases due to malnutrition.

Therefore, consuming nutrient-rich foods can be a useful approach to addressing nutritional deficiencies and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Signs Of Nutrient Deficiencies In Older Adults

The importance of vitamins and minerals for maintaining good health is commonly understood. However, how can you determine whether your body’s nutrient requirements are being met?

Usually, nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition can remain undetected for an extended period before displaying physical signs or symptoms. Nonetheless, there are some indications that you and your physician can monitor.

Here are some tell-tale signs of nutrient deficiency from WebMD.

1. Signs of Fatigue

If you’re tired and weak, it may be a sign of iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia indicated by low levels of red blood cells. Anemia can also cause unusual paleness. However, it’s important to note that other conditions like heart disease, depression, or thyroid disease can also cause excessive fatigue.

If you’re experiencing unusual fatigue, it’s best to consult with your doctor. They may prescribe supplements if you have anemia.

2. Dry and Brittle Hair

Hair is primarily made up of protein and can be used as a marker for nutritional deficiencies.

Brittle hair may indicate a lack of essential fatty acids, protein, iron, and other important nutrients. While hair loss is normal as we age, if it falls out at an abnormal rate, nutritional deficiencies may be the underlying cause. 

Once a doctor identifies deficiencies, they can be treated with nutrient-rich foods and supplements.

3. Nails with Ridges or Spoon-Shaped Appearance

Nails can provide early indications of an inadequate diet, much like hair. If your nails are spoon-shaped, curving up from the nail bed like a spoon (known as koilonychia), it could be a sign of iron-deficiency anemia. 

If you are diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor may prescribe iron supplements and suggest consuming iron-rich foods such as liver, clams, oysters, and mussels.

4. Oral Health Issues

Inflammation or cracking at the corners of the mouth (angular cheilitis) can be an early indication of riboflavin (B2) deficiency or iron deficiency. 

If your tongue appears unusually pale or swollen, it may indicate iron or B-vitamin deficiency. 

Burning mouth syndrome, a condition that continues to baffle researchers, may arise if the body’s iron, zinc, or B-vitamin levels fall below the required levels.

Once you have identified your specific nutritional deficiencies, consuming nutrient-rich foods and supplements can help treat them.

Read Also: Dental Health and Overall Nutrition of Seniors: The Hidden Link

5. Diarrhea

When you experience chronic diarrhea, it could indicate malabsorption in your body. This means that your body is not properly absorbing nutrients. 

Malabsorption can occur due to infection, surgery, certain medications, excessive alcohol consumption, and digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease and celiac sprue. 

If you are experiencing persistent diarrhea, it is important to seek medical advice from your doctor.

6. Apathy or Irritability

If you are feeling unexplained mood changes, especially if you are feeling apathetic or irritable, it could be a symptom of a serious medical condition such as depression.

Alternatively, it could also indicate that your body is not getting enough energy. If you are experiencing persistent low mood or forgetfulness, it is important to get yourself checked by your doctor.

7. Decreased Appetite

As individuals age, their appetite often decreases, and taste buds may become less sensitive. Additionally, if they become less active, they may require fewer calories. Medications can also contribute to a decrease in appetite.

8. Impaired Night Vision

Adequate levels of Vitamin A are necessary to maintain proper eye moisture, and a deficiency in this nutrient can result in deteriorating vision, particularly at night. Individuals with worsening night blindness should seek an evaluation from an eye doctor who can examine the back of the eye for signs of this condition.


Maintaining a nutrient-rich diet is crucial for seniors to prevent nutrient deficiencies and promote longevity. Our bodies require fewer calories as we age, but it’s important to ensure that the calories we consume are packed with essential nutrients. Seniors should focus on consuming various nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. 

Additionally, it’s essential to stay hydrated and supplement with vitamins and minerals when necessary. Seniors can maintain their health and quality of life by prioritizing a healthy diet and staying mindful of nutrient deficiencies for years.

To learn more about starting a journey to a healthier diet you may also check out our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life