Vitamin Essentials as We Age

The best way to get the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you need isn’t with a shopping spree at your local drugstore. It’s through your diet.

A good, balanced plan -- filled with fruits and vegetables, dairy, lots of fluids, healthy oils, good proteins, and whole grains -- should do the trick.

Still, many seniors struggle to maintain a healthy diet. There could be many culprits, including:

  • Diminished appetite
  • Trouble chewing
  • Fixed budgets
  • Trouble finding healthy foods

Add the fact that your body become less efficient as you age, and climbing Mount Nutrition is tough.

Supplements might be an option. Used as part of a plan that you and your doctor design, they can do just what their name says -- fill in the gaps in your diet.

But they can be dangerous. Take vitamin A, important for healthy eyes, skin, and immune system, for example.

“Vitamin A is somewhat of a controversial vitamin because you can get toxic from it," says Ronni Chernoff, director of the Arkansas Geriatric Education Collaborative. 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.

So what do you do?

“If you take a vitamin that is designed to be a once-a-day supplement, that’s OK,” Chernoff says. “But you don’t want to take five of them a day.”

If, after talking with your doctor, you decide that you do need a multivitamin, get a complete supplement, one that provides 100% of the recommended doses of vitamins and minerals.

Be careful of megadoses. Also take extra care when you:

  • Combine supplements
  • Take too much of one
  • Use one in place of a medication
  • Mix them with over-the-counter or prescription drugs

“You want to make sure your left hand knows what your right hand is doing,” says Joan Salge Blake, a Boston nutritionist.

Why Vitamins are Important

They help your body work the way it should. Among other things, they boost your immune system, keep your nerves healthy, and help turn the food you eat into energy.


Older adults have different needs when it comes to vitamins and minerals. Getting the right amount of calcium, for example, can help stave off osteoporosis in women. Vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium, also helps prevent bone loss and fractures in older adults.

It’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what you need. But again, if you have a balanced diet, you’re probably doing OK. If you’re still concerned, Robin Foroutan, a nutritionist from New York, suggests you ask your doctor for blood tests that can tell you if you’re falling short.

If you are, supplements might help.

Before you head to the store, though, it’s important to know the term “supplements” includes not only vitamins and minerals, but also herbs and other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes and other things. Some are so-called specialty products like probiotics or fish oils.

Before you take anything, talk with your doctor. Also make sure to read labels.

Here are some popular vitamins and a mineral that older adults need. You can find them in your diet or on the supplement aisle:

Calcium: “There really should be no reason that people should be calcium deficient,” says Angel Planells, a dietitian from Seattle. Known for its role in strengthening bones, calcium is found in dairy products like milk and yogurt. Women, especially those at risk of osteoporosis, may consider calcium supplements.

Vitamin D: This nutrient, produced by the body from sunshine, helps you absorb calcium and phosphorus, so it’s critical in maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Older adults are less efficient at producing it. Supplements can help lower your risk of bone loss and fractures.

Vitamin B12: This is important for keeping blood cells and nerve cells healthy. Aging affects how well you absorb B12 from foods, so if you’re over 50, it’s probably best to get your B12 from supplements and B12-fortified foods like cereals, meat, fish, and pork.

Folate: It helps prevent anemia. Spinach, beans, peas, oranges, fortified cereals, and enriched breads can contain it.


B6: This promotes good metabolism and immune functions. You can get it in potatoes, noncitrus fruits, meat, poultry, and fish.

You should make sure you get some:

Vitamin C: Oranges, right? (And red and green bell peppers, along with other vegetables and fruits.) It is believed to give protection from cataracts, help wound healing, and it may lower your cancer risk.

Magnesium: Among other things, it regulates blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It also promotes healthy bones. You can get it in nuts, spinach, and dairy products. It’s also used to fortify some breakfast cereals. As a supplement, its effectiveness is unclear.

And here are some popular items you can find in the supplements aisle that you might consider, after consulting with your doctor:

Probiotics: These are “really important for seniors because their digestive functions kind of start to slow down.” Foroutan says. Gut health is also very important for your immune system. Preliminary evidence shows that probiotics -- living organisms like those found in yogurt -- help prevent some types of diarrhea and ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Coenzyme Q10: Also called coQ10, this compound is made naturally in the body and is found in most body tissues. It may help your immune system work better.

Melatonin: A hormone released mostly at night, it’s believed to help you fall asleep. The science on it is promising.

Fish oil: The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and some other fish are believed to have cardiovascular benefits. The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of this type of fish a week. In supplement form, though, no results have shown that it protects against heart disease. There is also some evidence that omega-3s may help relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.


WebMD Feature Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on August 24, 2016



Ronni Chernoff, PhD, FAND, FASPEN; director, Arkansas Geriatric Education Collaborative at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

National Institute on Aging: “Vitamins & Minerals.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know.”

Joan Salge Blake, RD, LDN; professor, Boston University Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, HHC; spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Angel Planells, MS, RDN, CD; spokesperson spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Calcium.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin D.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin B12.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Folate.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin B6.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Magnesium.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Probiotics: In Depth.”

National Cancer Institute: “Coenzyme Q 10.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Melatonin.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth.”

American Heart Association: “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”

National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin D.”

American Optometric Association: “Nutrition and Cataracts.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Fish Oil.”

Mayo Clinic: "Vitamin A (retinol)."

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