Low vitamin levels linked to frailty

Latest findings from Irish study on ageing
  • Deborah Condon

Irish researchers have found that lower levels of certain dietary vitamins and antioxidants are associated with frailty in older people.

Frailty affects up to one in four adults over the age of 65 and over half of those over the age of 80. It is characterised by an overall decline in physical function and a loss of ability to bounce back after a stressful event, such as a fall, an infection or surgery.

Frailty is linked with poor health, including mental health, disability and death. However, it is not inevitable and can be avoided, delayed or reversed with appropriate and timely interventions.

"Frailty occurs when a number of systems in the body lose reserve capacity and therefore the ability to ‘bounce back' after even trivial illnesses. It is an important and challenging state; commonly associated with ageing, but also common in patients of any age who have major surgery, cancer treatments and severe infections.

"The hall mark of frailty is muscle weakness. If it is recognised in its early stages, it can be reversed. However, the longer it is present, the more difficult is it to 'bounce back' and generalised weakness and fatigue become progressively worse," explained Prof Rose-Anne Kenny, principal investigator with The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin.

This is an ongoing study of people over the age of 50 in Ireland.

In a new study, TILDA researchers assessed the link between frailty and levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, lutein and zeaxanthin. They noted that B vitamins are important for a number of cellular processes in the body, including energy metabolism and DNA repair, while vitamin D is essential for bone health, muscle strength and mood.

Meanwhile, lutein and zeaxanthin have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are important for eye and brain health.

The researchers noted that low levels of all of these vitamins and antioxidants are common in Irish adults.

However, their study found that lower levels of vitamin D, lutein and zeaxanthin were consistently linked withy frailty, and the earlier stages of ‘pre-frailty'. Low levels of B vitamins were associated with pre-frailty.

Furthermore, the researchers also found that the accumulation of micronutrient insufficiencies, i.e. having low levels of more than one micronutrient, was progressively associated with severity stages of frailty.

"We have presented evidence in the largest study to date that lower levels of specific vitamins and antioxidants, and having low levels of more than one micronutrient, is consistently and progressively associated with the most commonly used methods for measuring frailty.

"Our data suggest that low micronutrient status may act as an easily modified marker and intervention target for frailty among adults aged 50 years and over," explained the study's lead author, Dr Aisling O'Halloran.

The researchers believe that these findings raise questions around the topic of dietary supplementation and food fortification.

"Again we see that micronutrients are associated with better health outcomes in older adults. However we still lack a food fortification policy in Ireland and while this continues, we miss the opportunity of a cost-effective strategy to prevent and intervene in the progression of these conditions.

"As of yet there is no sign that the Government or the Food Safety Authority of Ireland intend to advise or implement on such a strategy," commented the study's co-author, Dr Eamon Laird.

Details of these findings are published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association (JAMDA).


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