If you are over 50 it is likely you have heard that you should take one vitamin or mineral supplement or another. Maybe it is an antioxidant shake or the new fad multi vitamin. Or maybe it is something that your mother’s generation swore people needed as they aged.
Whatever the reason, you undoubtedly have questions and we’re here to provide some of the answers. However, we advise first and foremost that you speak with your doctor about supplementing your vitamin or mineral intake. New York nutritionist Robin Foroutan suggests asking your doctor for blood tests if you are concerned about whether or not you are getting enough nutrients. We agree completely.
While it might be helpful to supplement your vitamin or mineral intake, it is never a good idea to supplement a doctor’s advice with hearsay, old wives’ tales, or even the carefully researched information that follows. Always consult a doctor before altering your body’s chemical makeup or dietary norms.
Should I Take It or Not…That is the Question
According to Dr. Donald McCormick, an Emory professor of biochemistry and Emory’s graduate program in nutrition and health sciences, at least half of adults age 65 and older takes daily vitamins and other supplements, but “only a fraction actually need them.” He says that the majority can get what they need by just improving their diets. “A lot of money is wasted in providing unnecessary supplements to millions of people who don’t need them,” Dr. McCormick says. “A supplement does not cure the aging process.”
Dietary supplements may give nutrients that are missing from one’s daily diet. The best way to get the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients the body needs is by eating a variety of healthy foods, however, when people are over 50 they often need more of some vitamins and minerals than they did when they were younger. For example, calcium helps to stave off osteoporosis in women, always a good thing but more “urgent” for older women.
Further, many seniors (yes, you are over 50, you are a senior) struggle to maintain a healthy diet. Problems like a diminished appetite, trouble chewing, and constraining budgets that make finding affordable healthy foods more difficult impede a person’s efforts to maintain a healthy diet.
The Body Becomes Less Efficient as You Age
Older adults are less efficient at producing Vitamin D. Combined with Calcium; Vitamin D is one of the body’s best defenses against bone loss which accelerates after 50, especially in women. Diane McKay, a nutrition researcher at Boston’s Tufts University says, “Since estrogen helps maintain bone mass, women become more vulnerable to bone loss after menopause.”
As many as a third of people over 50 do not absorb enough B12 from the foods they eat. People in this age group are also especially susceptible to riboflavin (B2) deficiency, which can cause cracking or sores at the corners of the mouth, skin irritation, and weakness.
As Carol Haggans, consultant for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements says, “Dietary supplements, in some cases, can help people get adequate amounts of essential nutrients.” She expands on this by adding that, “People can get all the nutrition they need by eating a variety of foods, but dietary supplements in some cases can help people get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. There are some nutrients that can benefit people over 50.”
There is no doubt that vitamins are important to a healthy body. They boost the immune system, help keep the nervous system healthy, and help turn food into energy. However, not all people need to supplement to get the vitamins and minerals that they need.
Haggans says, “The RDA for all nutrients is set knowing that we don’t absorb all that we consume, even from food. Most vitamins and minerals do have upper limits, over which they can cause health problems – iron, for example, can be fatal if you take too much. It is important to take any supplement as directed, and stick to RDAs.”
Picking Your Vitamin Supplements
So which supplement should you choose? Common nutrients suggested for supplementation in people over 50 include:
According to Haggans, severe deficiency of B12 can cause anemia, fatigue, weakness, and peripheral neuropathy. Vitamin B12 helps with metabolism, neurological function, and formation of red blood cells. It can be found naturally in fish, shellfish, meat, and dairy however many older adults have trouble absorbing this vitamin. Haggans says that this is the reason most adults over 50 should get their daily dietary intake of B12 from fortified foods like cereals or a regular multivitamin. Inadequate absorption of B12 can lead to neurological and balance problems.
Calcium works with Vitamin D to keep the bones strong. It can be found naturally in milk and milk products, canned fish with soft bones, and dark green leafy veggies such as kale and spinach. If you fail to get enough calcium from your diet a supplement may be the answer but it is important to be cautious as too much calcium is known to increase the risk of stroke and kidney stones.
In addition to the above mentioned benefit to one’s bones, Vitamin D reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, asthma, and inflammation. Most people can get enough by being in the sun for 15 minutes twice a week and by eating fatty fish, fortified milk and milk products, and other Vitamin D rich foods, but not always when over 50. According to Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, “More than one in four Americans aged 50 to 71 are not getting enough Vitamin D from diet and sunshine alone.”
Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) aids in the formation of red blood cells and strengthens the immune system. The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) is 1.7 milligrams for men and 1.5 milligrams for women. It can be obtained naturally through diet by eating potatoes, bananas, beans, nuts, eggs, and whole grains. It is important to make sure you are not exceeding the RDA as too high a dose can cause nerve damage, trouble walking, and numbness.
Essential to wound healing, Vitamin C also boosts the immune system, and is required for the growth and repair of tissues all over the body. It can be found in citrus fruits, kiwi and strawberries, and tomatoes (which are actually a citrus fruit by definition but few think of them as that). While there have been no scientific studies to confirm that Vitamin C helps prevent colds, it has been shown that it can shorten the length of one. In excess, it may lead to upset stomach and even diarrhea.
In addition, many doctors recommend a probiotic. The older you are, the more vulnerable your system. Taking a probiotic reintroduces healthy bacteria to one’s stomach. As nutritionist Jonny Bowden, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, says, “If your gut isn’t healthy, your body can’t absorb nutrients, so it doesn’t matter what supplements you take.”
Probiotics can be obtained by adding yogurt, dark chocolate, and kimchi, Korean fermented veggies, to your diet. If your diet is lite in these foods then a probiotic supplement in a dosage of 1 billion to 10 billion CFUs a few days a week is more than enough.
Supplements are not for everyone. They may cost a lot, be harmful, be ineffective, or change how meds you already take behave. The United States’ Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) regulates the quality and purity of both prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications. They do not however, use the same standards for supplements as they do not consider them to be medicines.
That means that just because a dietary supplement is in a store, that does not mean that it is safe, that it does what it says it will, or that it contains what the label says it does… and nothing else. There are private groups that have developed their own “seal of approval” ensuring that the products must be made following good manufacturing procedures, contain what is listed on the label, does not contain harmful levels of things that do not belong in it. These include the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, ConsumerLab.com, and Natural Products Association (NPA).
Supplements can be dangerous. For example, according to Ronni Chernoff, director of the Arkansas Geriatric Education collaborative, “Vitamin A is somewhat of a controversial vitamin because you can get toxic from it. Too much of it can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms.” She adds that older people are more likely to ail when they take too much because their bodies don’t deal with the vitamin as well. “If you take a vitamin that is designed to be a once a day supplement, that’s okay,” Chernoff adds, “But you don’t want to take five of them a day.”
Riding on the back of the vitamin and mineral supplements is antioxidant supplementation. Touted by supplement companies and holistic healers as a cure for nearly all that ails a body, antioxidants are natural substances found in some foods that help prevent some diseases. They are no more a cure all than the snake oil of the old west. In fact, research suggests that large doses of supplements with antioxidants not only won’t help but may actually be harmful.
Antioxidants can be found naturally in fruits and veggies which are dark green or dark orange, most nuts and berries, as well as canola, olive, and peanut oils.
In addition to the aforementioned cautions, be wary of mega doses of vitamins or minerals as the body is not prepared to deal with large influxes of any nutrient. For example, with age the kidneys become less capable of removing potassium from the blood.
In addition, use extra care when combining supplements, take more than the recommended daily dose, use one in the place of prescribed medications, and/or mixing them with over the counter or prescription medications. As Boston nutritionist Joan Salge Blake says, “You want to make sure your left hand knows what your right hand is doing.” Also, as stated at the beginning of this article, never supplement without discussing it with your medical practitioner first.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that all older adults should pay special attention to their intake of calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, potassium, and fiber. As already stated, too much calcium can result in an upset stomach and diarrhea and too little B12 can result in neurological and balance problems. Additionally, too much fiber can lead to constipation and cramping while too little leads to diarrhea.
Other Cautions Should Be Exercised When Consuming The Following:
Vitamin B1 (aka Thiamine)
Thiamine is necessary for healthy nerve and brain cells and helps convert food to energy. However, if you are taking an antacid or diuretic it may lower the thiamin levels in your body by decreasing absorption and increasing urinary output.
Vitamin B3 (aka Niacin)
Necessary for the proper functioning of the digestive system, skin and nerves, and for the conversion of food to energy, niacin is found in meat, eggs, and fish. However, supplementation should only be used under a doctor’s supervision due to severe side effects.
Helping protect the cells from damage, Vitamin E is found naturally in nuts, fruits, and vegetables. If you are taking a blood thinner, make sure you talk to your doctor before taking any Vitamin E supplement as it can increase the risk of bleeding.
A B vitamin, folic acid may mask a B12 deficiency in high doses, especially in older adults. It can be found naturally in enriched cereals, whole grain breads, and dark, leafy vegetables.
Needed for blood clotting, Vitamin K also helps older men and women maintain strong bones. However, it can dilute the effect of blood thinners and should be used with the supervision of your medical practitioner.
Dietary iron is vital to healthy red blood cells and is obtainable from meat, eggs, and fortified bread and grain products. People over 50 are advised against using a multivitamin containing iron unless they have been diagnosed with a deficiency.
While showing promise in helping those with heart disorders, people with diabetes should use caution with ginseng especially if they are taking medication to lower blood glucose as it has been shown to do the same.
In addition, it is important to remember to be wary of supplements that promise miraculous cures or scientific breakthroughs, which mention secret ingredients, or which brags about personal testimonials without any scientific research to support those testimonials. As will everything else in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Working with a doctor is the only way to be sure that you are getting what your body needs. It is also the only way to be sure that you are not taking too much and risking creating a toxicity that could actually hurt you rather than help you. Supplements can also interfere with how medications you are already taking affect you. Again, only your doctor will know enough about you to recommend supplements.
The American Medical Association (AMA) states that if adults over 50 years of age are determined to augment their diet with supplements for vitamins and minerals the body needs, they should take an all-inclusive option rather than individual components. That is because while an all in one may not give the maximum dosage of nutrients, you will never have to worry about going over that max.
When in doubt, skip the supplements until you have the chance to orchestrate their use through your personal doctor’s office. It is better to be safe than sorry.