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J Am Coll Nutr. 1994 Oct;13(5):455-62.

Marginal zinc deficiency in older adults: responsiveness of zinc status indicators.

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Sarah W. Stedman Center for Nutritional Studies, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC 27710.



Suspicions that mild zinc deficiency is common among the elderly cannot be confirmed or refuted because definitive indicators of zinc status are lacking. The goal of this study was to document the clinical responsiveness of parameters of zinc status in a group of older adults consuming a carefully controlled diet: first moderately low in zinc (3.97 mg/day for 15 days) and then high in zinc (28.19 mg/day for 6 days).


Fifteen older adults (mean age = 66.6 yrs) volunteered to consume a marginally zinc-deficient diet for 15 days followed by 6 days of zinc repletion. Plasma concentrations of erythrocyte metallothionein and the enzyme 5'-nucleotidase, as well as levels of zinc, alkaline phosphatase, copper and ceruloplasmin were measured before and after zinc depletion and repletion.


Plasma zinc levels were not altered during the study. Alkaline phosphatase (AP) values did not change in the expected direction, although a small decrease in AP following zinc repletion was statistically significant. Erythrocyte metallothionein results followed a pattern similar to that of alkaline phosphatase, little change, but a small, statistically significant drop after zinc repletion. As expected, there were no diet-associated changes in plasma copper and ceruloplasmin levels. In contrast, plasma concentrations of the enzyme 5'-nucleotidase decreased (p < 0.01) from 2.7 +/- 0.5 to 1.1 +/- 0.5 U during zinc depletion and increased (p < 0.05) to 2.2 +/- 0.4 U after 6 days of repletion.


Mild zinc deficiency is difficult to detect. In this study, traditional indicators such as plasma zinc and alkaline phosphatase did not change as would be expected in response to alterations in zinc intake. Likewise, erythrocyte metallothionein did not respond to altered zinc intakes as expected but this factor may reflect long-standing or more severe zinc depletion and thus requires additional study. Activity of the enzyme 5'-nucleotidase appears responsive to acute changes in zinc intake; however, more work is needed to define how well these activities will reflect zinc intake in other types of subjects.

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