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Do Older Adults Need Vitamins, Supplements?

By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

senior man pouring pills into hand

Nov. 30, 2012 -- At least half of adults age 65 and above take daily vitamins and other supplements, but only a fraction actually need them, says an Emory University expert.

The majority of older adults, he says, can improve their diet to get needed nutrients.

"A lot of money is wasted in providing unnecessary supplements to millions of people who don't need them," says Donald B. McCormick, PhD, an Emory professor emeritus of biochemistry and the graduate program in nutrition and health sciences at Emory.

He challenges what he says is a widely held belief that the older people get, the more vitamins and mineral supplements they need.

The scientific backup for that doesn’t exist, he says. "We know too little to suggest there is a greater need in the elderly for most of these vitamins and minerals."

"A supplement does not cure the aging process," he says. And in some cases, supplements may do harm, he says. Expense is another factor.

His report, which reviews numerous studies of vitamins and mineral supplements, is published in Advances in Nutrition.

Duffy MacKay, ND, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry group representing dietary supplement makers, agrees that starting with a good diet is the best way to get needed nutrients.

But he says that is not always reality, especially for older adults who may have obstacles such as a reduced appetite.

Older-Adult Nutrient Needs

McCormick reviewed studies on dietary supplements in older adults published in the last 12 years.

He says that ''it is apparent that changes in requirements for the elderly do not suggest massive supplement use covering most micronutrients." He says minor diet changes can fill needs for nutrients, ''with supplements included only where there is evidence of serious limitation of intake."

He disagrees with a study suggesting that older adults should take two multivitamins a day. He found no evidence that older adults need more thiamin, riboflavin, or niacin than younger people. Some older adults may need more vitamin B6, B12, and folate, research suggests.

But vitamin C needs do not seem to change with age, he says, if an older adult does not smoke cigarettes.

McCormick also found no evidence that absorption or the body's use of vitamin E changes as people get older. He says there is a decrease in the way the skin makes vitamin D. So for some older adults, supplemental vitamin D may be needed. In some research, taking 800 to 1,000 IUs of vitamin D a day helped women who were past menopause.

Copper requirements don't seem to change with age, either, McCormick says.

Older adults often take in less chromium, but he says there is not evidence that there are any health consequences.

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