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Seniors and Nutritional Supplements: What Do You Need?

Updated on July 25, 2017
Allie Brito profile image

I'm a grad student at Michigan State University, studying rehabilitation counseling. My goal is to help care for our aging population.

Some Doctors may suggest taking nutritional supplements as one way to live a healthier lifestyle as you age.
Some Doctors may suggest taking nutritional supplements as one way to live a healthier lifestyle as you age. | Source

As we age, our bodies don’t metabolize like they used to, which is why it becomes more critical than ever to watch what we eat and make sure we are getting the nutrients we need. Most seniors know this, as about 50% of them take daily vitamin supplements to get the nutrition they need.

But how much do we need? Do we need to stock up on vitamin supplements? Not necessarily. According Dr. Donald B. McCormick, PhD, an Emory professor emeritus of biochemistry and the graduate program in nutrition and health sciences, “there is too little scientific evidence to suggest that there is a greater need for the elderly in vitamins and minerals.” Meaning that we need the same amount we always have- but don't let that stop you from reading on.

A Healthy Diet May Not Be Enough

Simply watching what you eat in order to stay healthy may not be enough anymore.
Simply watching what you eat in order to stay healthy may not be enough anymore. | Source

Aging and Nutritional Supplements

Since many age-related illnesses and medication side effects change how seniors absorb vitamins and minerals, individuals who once experienced adequate vitamin and mineral intake through a healthy diet and lifestyle may need to consider adding nutritional supplements to their daily routine in order to make up for the unabsorbed nutrients. For example, some medications are diarrhetics and can drain your body of essential minerals and vitamins due to increased urination. Individuals diagnosed with kidney problems may need to decrease their potassium intake.

Simply put, our bodies are always changing, and our bodies are all different. As we change and age, we do not metabolize nutrients as effectively as we used to, so I did some research to get to the bottom of this whole seniors taking vitamins debate. I spent considerable time on various websites, and found that the most helpful and consistent information on this subject (in my opinion) came from The Linus Paul Institute of Oregon State University, whose focus is researching Health Maintenance, and The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Institute of Medicine. *I wanted to see which vitamins we should be focused the most on as we age, and here is a summary of my findings:

Dr. Linus Paul- co-founder of the Linus Pauling Institute, now located at Oregon State University in Corvalliso.
Dr. Linus Paul- co-founder of the Linus Pauling Institute, now located at Oregon State University in Corvalliso. | Source

"The goal of these studies is to understand the mechanisms by which diet, micronutrients, and dietary supplements affect disease initiation and progression and can be used in the prevention or treatment of human diseases, thereby enhancing lifespan and health span." - Excerpt from "About The Linus Paul Institute" webpage

Vitamins B6 and B12

Vitamin B12 is needed to keep up mental cognition and some studies suggest it is linked to preventing dementia. However, our bodies’ ability to keep B vitamins in diminishes, and B vitamins do not stay in the system for very long. This one, I would recommend talking to your doctor about a supplement, plus, eating more foods where B vitamins occur naturally, such as dairy products.

Vitamin C

Source

Along with the noticeable slowing of your metabolize with age, your immune system gradually slows too. Vitamin C is essential for keeping that immune system working at an optimal level so it can protect each cell in your body. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and antioxidants neutralize free radicals that destroy your healthy cells. This vitamin also helps in the production of collagen, a vital component of your skin and connective tissue for proper healing of wounds, as well as supports healthy brain cell functions.

According to the Linus Pauling Institute, a vitamin C intake of at least 400 mg per day may be specifically important for aging adults who could be at higher risk for age-related illnesses. Luckily, you get vitamin C from nearly every fruit and veggie in your diet, so even though many multivitamins lack an adequate amount of your daily recommended dose of this vitamin, you probably get enough from your diet.

Vitamin C for Smokers

Along with a host of health problems, smoking weakens your immune system. If you still smoke or have been a longtime smoker, you may need more Vitamin C to keep your immune system up as you age.

Vitamin D and Calcium

These help your bones and your immune system, which can deteriorate a lot as we age. Osteoporosis is also all-too common in seniors and Vitamin D and calcium can help protect your bones from this disease. Vitamin D is also associated with helping to decrease the risk of multiple cancers, bone fractures, and multiple sclerosis. Find Vitamin D in dairy products and sunlight (avoid too much sun exposure though). The best source of calcium besides dairy is dark, leafy greens like spinach and broccoli.

Daily supplementation with 2,000 IU (50 μg) of vitamin D if you aren't consuming enough, is especially important for older adults since aging is associated with a reduced ability to synthesize vitamin D through the skin via the sun.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an important mineral because it is involved in many physiologic pathways and cell functions- more than 300 essential metabolic reactions to be more specific. To name a few, magnesium plays a structural role in bones, cells and cell membranes, helps with energy production, nucleic acid and protein synthesis, and helps the enzymes that synthesis many carbs and lipids.

Deficiency of magnesium isn't as common as other minerals because it can be found in both plant and animal products. Studies do show, however, that seniors are at greater risk of deficiency because medications and chronic-conditions such as gastrointestinal and renal disorders can deplete your body's magnesium levels. Taking a multivitamin should help replenish lost magnesium.

Potassium

Find this important mineral and electrolyte in bananas, potatoes, and avocados. Potassium is essential to for our body's cells and cell membranes in order for our bodies to function normally. Potassium lowers our sodium levels and keep our blood pressure from spiking too high. However, if you have kidney issues, potassium is something you may would need to avoid (which is why you should always ask your doctor).

An abnormally low potassium concentration in your blood's plasma is referred to as "hypokalemia." Hypokalemia is most commonly present as a result of an excessive loss of this essential mineral, usually caused from prolonged vomiting, the use of medications that are diuretics, and some forms of kidney diseases or metabolic disorders. The physical symptoms of someone experiencing this type of potassium deficiency include fatigue, weakness of your muscles, cramps, bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain.

Fiber

One noticeable change many seniors agree on is that your GI system doesn’t move things through your body like it used to. While there are different classifications of fibers, in general it can be said that eating a fibrous diet or can help you feel fuller, and keep food moving through your system. Another easy way to get more fiber, besides eating more fruits and veggies, is to switch to whole grain products and consider taking a daily fiber supplement.

Studies discussed by the Linus Pauling Institute provide strong and consistent evidence that diets rich in fiber can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as type 2 diabetes. Find fiber in: whole grains, legumes, fruit, and nonstarchy vegetables!

Viscous fibers, such as those found in legumes and oats has additional benefits to just digestion: these fibers can lower serum LDL cholesterol levels and stabilize your blood glucose and insulin responses.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Studies show that typically women over the age of 60 receive an adequate intake of this nutrient through their diet, while men over the age of 60 do not. This is an essential part of a balanced diet particularly for aging adults because omega-3 fatty acids are associated with protection against heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline.

Additional Recommendations

Below is a table of other micronutrient recommendations and their intake suggestion according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine for individuals who are over 50. Remember: you should never make a decision regarding your health without first consulting your doctor.

Micronutrient
Men
Women
Vitamins
 
 
Biotin
30 _g/day(AI)
30 _g/day (AI)
Folate
400 _g/day
400 _g/day
Niacin
16 mgNE*/day
14 mg NE/day
Pantothenic acid
5 mg/day (AI)
5 mg/day (AI)
Riboflavin
1.3 mg/day
1.1 mg/day
Thiamin
1.2 mg/day
1.1 mg/day
Vitamin A
900 _g (3,000 IU)/day
700 _g (2,333 IU)/day
Vitamin B6
1.7 mg/day
1.5 mg/day
Vitamin B12
2.4 _g/day#
2.4 _g/day#
Vitamin C
90 mg/day
75 mg/day
Vitamin D(51-70 years)
15 _g (600 IU)/day
15 _g (600 IU)/day
Vitamin D(>70 years)
20 _g (800 IU)/day
20 _g (800 IU)/day
Vitamin E
15 mg (22.5 IU)/day
15 mg (22.5 IU)/day
Vitamin K
120 _g/day (AI)
90 _g/day (AI)
Minerals
 
 
Calcium(51-70 years)
1,000 mg/day
1,200 mg/day
Calcium(>70 years)
1,200 mg/day
1,200 mg/day
Chromium
30 _g/day (AI)
20 _g/day (AI)
Copper
900 _g/day
900 _g/day
Fluoride
4 mg/day (AI)
3 mg/day (AI)
Iodine
150 _g/day
150 _g/day
Iron
8 mg/day
8 mg/day
Magnesium
420 mg/day
320 mg/day
Manganese
2.3 mg/day (AI)
1.8 mg/day (AI)
Molybdenum
45 _g/day
45 _g/day
Phosphorus
700 mg/day
700 mg/day
Potassium
4.7 g/day (AI)
4.7 g/day (AI)
Selenium
55 _g/day
55 _g/day
Sodium(51-70 years)
1.3 g/day (AI)
1.3 g/day (AI)
Sodium(>70 years)
1.2 g/day (AI)
1.2 g/day (AI)
Zinc
11 mg/day
8 mg/day
*NE, niacin equivalent: 1 mg NE = 60 mg of tryptophan = 1 mg niacin #Vitamin B12 intake should be from supplements or fortified foods due to the age-related increase in malabsorption Abbreviations: μg=microgram; mg=milligram; g=gram; IU=International

So, What's The Verdict on Vitamins?

As far as supplements go, I found that most doctors agree that you need more of some vitamins and minerals as you age for various reasons, and nutritional supplements can help. However, some supplements may have a negative interaction with your medication or each other and they should not be a substitute for a healthy, nutritious diet at any age. As many as 1 in 6 older adults are unknowingly taking a combination of supplements and medication that could be harmful to their health!

If you are taking nutritional supplements or thinking about it, do your homework and speak to a pharmacist about which ones can negatively interact with your medication. And remember, the best way to get your essential nutrients is through food. Eat a rainbow every day – natural, real food of every color! Of course, this is easier said than done in a society where fast food is everywhere and foods containing too much saturated fats, sugar, and sodium are prevalent.

If you are concerned you are not getting the nutrients you need from your daily diet, talk to your doctor and ask for a health assessment that can help identify where your nutrition is lacking, and which supplements could be a good fit for your lifestyle.

*This article is by no means meant to encourage or discourage the use of nutritional supplements and is purely to inform you of what is being said about vitamins and seniors right now. I do not codon anyone, regardless of your age, taking their health into their own hands without first consulting a doctor or nutritional specialist.

For More Info...

For more information on nutritional health and wellness for seniors, check out the following resources:

Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

5100 Paint Branch Parkway College Park, MD 20740

1-888-723-3366 (toll-free)

www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OfficeofFoods/CFSAN/default.htm

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine NCCAM Clearinghouse

P.O. Box 7923 Gaithersburg, MD 20898

1-888-644-6226 (toll-free) 1-866-464-3615 (TTY/toll-free)

www.nccam.nih.gov

National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus

www.medlineplus.gov

Office of Dietary Supplements National Institutes of Health

6100 Executive Boulevard Room 3B01, MSC 7517 Bethesda, MD 20892-7517

1-301-435-2920

www.ods.od.nih.gov

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Some doctors also think that we don't need the supplements. I think we do, but I don't take them consistently. You make a good case for them. Your article is very helpful.