Doctors instruct people 65 years and older to get flu shots, eat a high-fiber diet and do strengthening exercises to stay healthy.
But of all the things older people can do, taking nutritional supplements ranks as one of the easiest, says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University School of Nutrition, Science and Policy.
"It's one thing you can do that's not too hard to do," he says.
That's important, since seniors need to do what they can to protect themselves from heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death among people 65 years and older, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Nutritional supplements not only help decrease the risk of certain diseases, but they also fill up what's missing in a typical elderly person's diet. It usually doesn't have a sufficient number of calories to cover the essential nutrients, says Blumberg. Older people tend to have a smaller appetite and usually eat only about 1,200 calories of food. Compare that with the 2,000 calories required to follow the food pyramid -- a recommended diet that includes a healthful balance of foods -- and the need for supplements is clear.
The supplement that nutritionists have been promoting most recently is vitamin B-12, which in food depends on stomach acid to be absorbed. However, recent studies have shown that 10% to 30% of people 51 years and older have lower amounts of stomach acid and therefore can't absorb much of the vitamin.
But in supplement form, the vitamin doesn't rely on stomach acid, making supplements a good way to make up for the lack. Otherwise, people who don't get enough of the vitamin can suffer from anemia, other blood-cell disorders, and neurological disorders including memory loss and changes in gait.
Nutritionists recommend that all adults get at least 2.4 micrograms per day of vitamin B-12, which is found mostly in meats. People 51 years of age or older should get most of the vitamin from supplements or fortified cereals.
The B vitamin folate reduces levels of homocysteine, a molecule that is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Blumberg recommends that elderly people take 400 micrograms per day to supplement the amount of folate they may get from their diet.
Folate is found in dark green, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and fortified grain products such as pasta and flour. Foods with a high concentration of folate include spinach, orange juice, and lentils.
Research studies show conflicting evidence that vitamin E reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions. Vitamin E is found in fatty foods such as nuts and oils.
People 14 years and older should take 15 mg per day, according to the Food and Nutrition Board, the organization that determines "RDAs."
Calcium and Vitamin D
Finally, elderly people need to keep their bones strong by supplementing their diet with calcium and vitamin D. The pair work hand in hand to prevent bones from thinning, which can lead to devastating fractures.
Many older people lack enough calcium in their diets because they can't digest dairy foods, the primary source for calcium, says Lisa Scott, a clinical nutritionist at UCSF Mount Zion Medical Center who works with elderly patients. And meeting the daily requirement of 1,200 milligrams of calcium through other foods, such as broccoli, simply doesn't happen.
For patients who don't eat any dairy products or calcium-fortified orange juice, she recommends they get the full 1,200 milligrams from supplements. Supplements made from calcium carbonate or calcium citrate are best.
With the sun's help, the skin produces the body's main source of vitamin D. But as skin ages, its ability to produce vitamin D decreases. At the same time, elderly people tend to stay out of the sun, making a deficiency all the more probable. The Food and Nutrition Board recommends that people 51 years or older receive 10 to 15 micrograms of vitamin D each day. Taking supplements is a good way to meet the daily requirement.
Still, however convenient supplements may be, they shouldn't take the place of eating a well-balanced diet, Blumberg says.
"It's important to recognize that dietary supplements are not dietary substitutes," he says. Taking supplements is "just another healthy thing you can do for yourself."