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Vitamin Essentials as We Age

As we age, our dietary requirements change, and we're also more focused on the diseases and disorders that accompany aging -- conditions that getting the right nutrients may help to prevent.

B-12 Basics

Another vitamin that we tend to get less of as we age is B-12, which is naturally found in animal foods and proteins including meat, eggs, milk, fish, and poultry, as well as in fortified cereals. Adults of all ages should get 2.4 micrograms of B-12 daily (pregnant and breastfeeding women need a little more).

"Research has shown that as we grow older, we tend to make less stomach acid, and stomach acid is required for the efficient absorption of vitamin B-12," says Rosenberg. That's because B-12 needs to be separated from the protein it's bound to in your food before you can start making use of it." The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults over 50 get most of their vitamin B-12 from supplements or fortified food because of impaired B-12 absorption.

So what can B-12 do for you? Quite a lot, if you're concerned about your memory and cognitive (mental) function. "This vitamin is one of the important requirements for the maintenance of healthy central nervous system function [brain and spinal cord]," says Rosenberg. "In the absence of that vitamin, you're likely to see some decline in memory and cognitive function as well as other neurologic abnormalities."

Folate: Not Just for Pregnancy

Almost every pregnant woman knows that a daily dose of folate is essential for preventing neural tube defects in the developing fetus. More and more, research is indicating that folate may be just as important as we age as it is during pregnancy.

"Folic acid helps to metabolize a substance called homocysteine, which has been clearly associated with the risk of heart disease and stroke," says Rosenberg. "If you don't have enough folate, you're likely to have high homocysteine levels. In recent years, there's been increasing evidence that these levels are also associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia."

Folate may have cancer-fighting properties as well. "Harvard studies suggest that folate can play an important role in cancer prevention; the evidence is strongest for colorectal cancer," says Demark. "The Harvard group has reached the point of suggesting that all adults ought to be taking folate supplements; other groups are a little less emphatic about how much we should use folate. There's no real consensus yet."

The current recommended daily allowance of folate for adults is 400 mcg per day, raised to 600 mcg if you're pregnant. Many fortified grain products like pasta, bread, breakfast cereals, and rice contain folate, as do dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and citrus juices and fruits.

Vitamin E and Vitamin C

Vitamin E and vitamin C are both powerful antioxidants; studies have suggested that they may help protect against diseases of aging as varied as cancer, Alzheimer's, and cataracts. But other studies have found that increased E and C intake does nothing to prevent these diseases. "We still don't have really strong evidence from randomized, controlled trials," says Demark.

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