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Zinc Deficiency in the Elderly is a Common Problem Which Needs to Be Addressed

By Rob Poulos...

Studies supported by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies have shown that a zinc deficiency may develop in humans as we age. Due to a biological mechanism, this deficiency may result in a number of health conditions. Inflammation commonly seen with many health conditions, ranging from heart disease, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune disease, may increase. The immune system may also decline.

Scientists from the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences joined with those from Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute to conduct a study. Findings from the study show that the elderly must ensure they get an adequate intake of zinc from their diet. More is needed at this stage in life and yet their ability to absorb this essential micronutrient is declining.

It is estimated that two billion people the world over, including 40% of elderly Americans, are lacking the appropriate amount of zinc in their diet. This study was conducted using laboratory animals and was first published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. In elderly lab animals, the zinc transporters were significantly dysregulated. As a result, these animals exhibited signs of zinc deficiency. Although their diet appeared to have enough zinc for normal functioning, the animals also had an enhanced inflammatory response.

When researchers increased the amount of zinc in the diet by ten times, the biomarkers of inflammation were restored to levels typically seen in younger animals. In the United States, the elderly population is increasing at a faster rate than any other population. They are the most susceptible to a deficiency of this type, according to LPI principal investigatory Emily Ho. The elderly don’t take in enough of this nutrient. What is taken in isn’t absorbed very well either.

Previous human and animal studies have show that this deficiency may lead to DNA damage. This study shows that it may also lead to systematic inflammation. As Ms. Ho points out, some inflammation is expected as this is a part of wound healing, immune defense and other normal bodily functions. When it is excessive though, she goes on to say, it has been linked to most degenerative diseases. This includes heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, it is believed to be a significant factor in those diseases which most die from.

For this reason, Ms. Ho recommends that all elderly make use of a dietary supplement which provides the full RDA for zinc. This is 11 milligrams a day for males and eight milligrams for females. Zinc intake levels over 40 milligrams should be avoided though. At these high levels, zinc interferes with the absorption of other essential nutrients. This includes copper and iron.

Meats and seafood also contain zinc, although it is hard to absorb zinc from vegetables and grains. Vegetarians need to ensure they are getting enough in their diet. One thing Ms. Ho points out, at this time, the official RDA level for zinc is the same for both young and elderly adults. This needs to be looked at more closely.

Age-related epigenetic changes disrupt the mechanisms which are used to transport zinc in the body, according to Carmen Wong, co-author of this study and an OSU research associate. As a result histone modifications and DNA methylation which are related to disease processes are increased. A zinc deficiency can significantly affect immune system cells also.

Studies conducted at OSU and other locations show zinc is necessary for protection against oxidative stress. It is also essential for repairing DNA damage. The body’s ability to repair itself from this type of damage decreases just as the amount of damage is increasing.

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