Should adults over 60 take vitamins?
Vitamins and minerals help your body function and keep you healthy. And as you get older, nutrient needs can change.
Older adults often need higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals to maintain health as the body becomes less effective at making, processing, and absorbing vitamins and minerals.
Nutrients can help prevent and slow the decline of different body systems, such as brain function and eye health. Older adults are at a higher risk for developing certain diseases, and that risk can be increased by a lack of certain nutrients.
Though it’s possible to get most nutrients through a healthy, balanced diet, it may be necessary to take certain supplements or multivitamins to help meet your body’s nutrient needs.
Use supplements judiciously and wisely. They are exactly what their name spells out—supplemental to diet. They cannot replace life’s first “medicine”—healthy food. Most people who eat a healthy, balanced diet, don’t need supplements. —Dr. Petrina Craine
Vitamin D is an important vitamin for bone building. It helps your body absorb and use another essential mineral—calcium. It also plays an important role in maintaining strong muscles and healthy nervous and immune systems.
Why you need more
With age, your skin becomes less efficient at making vitamin D from sunlight. Your kidneys are very important in helping your body convert vitamin D into a form your body can use. As kidney function declines with age, the body is less effective at converting it into the usable form.
Low vitamin D levels can lead to decreased muscle strength, raising the risk of falls. Research has shown that low levels are associated with certain health conditions, including osteoporosis, a decline in brain function, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even cancer.
The recommended daily requirement is 600 IU (international units) for people up to age 70, and 800 IU for those 71 and older. However, the recommends 800 to 1,000 IUs for all older adults, and as much as 2,000 IUs for those who are obese, have osteoporosis, or have very limited sun exposure such as those who are in a nursing home or homebound.
- Vitamin D doesn’t occur naturally in most foods. Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, and trout), egg yolks, and cheese have some vitamin D
- Many foods are fortified with vitamin D, like milk, orange juice, soy milk, and cereal.
- Your body converts sunlight (specifically UVB rays) into vitamin D. But to get enough, about 40% of your body needs to be in the sun for about 10 to 20 minutes daily. It is important to wear sunscreen to help reduce your risk of skin cancer. Don’t worry about not getting enough sun exposure with sunscreen, as some will still get through to help convert vitamin D.
- As everyone’s vitamin D needs are unique, there is no set optimal amount. Too much vitamin D can be harmful as it can lead to confusion, kidney stones, and even death from irregular heartbeats. A supplement of 1,000 IUs may be the most reliable way to make sure you get enough vitamin D.
Calcium, like vitamin D, is a key mineral for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. It also supports the functioning of muscle cells and helps nerve cells transfer important messages between the nervous system and the rest of the body.
Why you need more
Calcium helps slow bone loss and protect against fractures and osteoporosis.
With age, especially in postmenopausal women, there is greater bone loss and a decrease in calcium absorption from food.
Women age 51-70: 1,200 mg daily
Men age 51-70: 1,000 mg daily
It’s not recommended to take more than 2,000 mg of calcium daily. Too much calcium can cause bad effects, such as weakening bones, kidney stones, interfering with nervous system function, and even irregular heartbeats.
You need about 5 to 6 servings of calcium-rich food daily to get enough calcium. Good sources of calcium include:
- Milk, yogurt, cheese.
- Spinach, kale, broccoli, and Chinese cabbage.
- Tofu and soybeans.
- Foods fortified with calcium like milk, soy milk, breakfast cereals, and orange juice.
- A calcium supplement may be recommended if you can’t get enough from your diet. People over the age of 50 should consider taking calcium in the form called calcium citrate. It's easier for the body to digest and less likely to cause constipation that can occur if you take calcium carbonate, the other form of calcium supplement.
Just because a supplement is being sold doesn’t mean it’s safe or effective. Buy supplements that have certification from reputable, independent labs that have worked to ensure safety. In the US, many of these supplements will have a label from one of these labs, which include the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International, and ConsumerLab.com. —Dr. Craine
Vitamin B-12 is involved in different cell functions including supporting the body’s nerve and blood cells.
Why you need more
When you don’t have enough vitamin B-12, you may feel tired, weak, or constipated. You may lose your appetite, lose weight, or develop anemia. Low amounts have also been associated with dementia, confusion, problems walking, and poor memory.
Luckily, it is often stored in the liver for many years. It can be harder for older adults to absorb the vitamin from natural food sources. This is often due to digestion problems such as issues with stomach acid and enzymes needed to absorb it.
2.4 mcg daily
- Beef, liver, and clams have high levels.
- Fish, poultry, eggs, and milk are good sources.
- Fortified foods like cereals and breads are also good dietary sources.
- Most multivitamins contain B-12.
There are currently no maximum levels of B-12 recommended as it has a relatively low risk for causing bodily harm, even if taken in excessive amounts.
Vitamin B6 is critically involved in many functions including metabolism, transporting oxygen in red blood cells, and processes involved in mood, memory, and immunity.
Why you need more
Your body needs more Vitamin B6 as you get older, partially due to your body’s decreased ability to absorb the vitamin.
Low levels are associated with cancer, heart disease, seizures, headaches, chronic pain, depression, brain function decline, and a weaker immune system.
Women over 50 years age: 1.5 mg daily
Men over 50 years of age: 1.7 mg daily
- Poultry, fish, and beef
- Potatoes, other starchy vegetables, and avocados
- Non-citrus fruits
Getting high amounts of vitamin B6 from food has not been shown to be associated with bad health effects. Taking too much of it from supplements can lead to severe problems with your nerves and skin.
Magnesium is a mineral involved in many processes, such as building muscles, bones, and nerves, and regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
Why you need more
Older adults tend to require higher levels of magnesium because their kidneys release more of it out of the body. At the same time, changes in digestion cause less of the mineral to be absorbed properly. Normal magnesium levels have been associated with having fewer chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Although it is abundant in many foods, most adults don’t get enough magnesium from their diet.
Women over age 50: 320 mg daily
Men over age 50: 420 mg daily
- Beans, nuts, seeds/
- Green leafy vegetables (spinach).
- Dark chocolate.
- Foods fortified with magnesium, such as cereals and bread and even some water sources.
- Milk, yogurt, and other milk products.
- Multivitamins containing magnesium.
Too much of this mineral can lead to digestive problems such as cramping. It can also cause deadly effects like problems breathing and even irregular heartbeats that could lead to your heart stopping.
Omega-3s aren't vitamins or minerals, but they are an important class of nutrients called fatty acids. There are different types of fatty acids, which are critical components of cell membranes.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
DHA levels are especially high in eye, brain, and sperm cells.
Why you need more
Our bodies don’t naturally make omega-3s. We can only get this important nutrient from food or supplements.
Women 51 years of age and older: 1,100 mg daily
Men 51 years of age and older: 1,600 mg daily
- Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines (one serving satisfies the daily requirement)
- Nuts and seeds (flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts)
- Plant oils (flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil)
- Foods fortified with DHA/EPA (common in eggs, yogurt, milk, and soymilk)
- Omega-3 supplements, which contain various types of fish oil
While there is no clear bad effect on health from consuming too many omega-3s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not going over 3,000 mg a day of EPA and DHA combined.
If you choose to take supplements, target their usage to a suspected or confirmed nutritional needs or deficiencies. For example, if you are on a blood pressure medicine that has a side effect of lowering your potassium, talk with your doctor about taking a potassium supplement while on this medication—as well as increasing your intake of foods packed with potassium. —Dr. Craine
What it does
Potassium is a critical electrolyte. It is required by every cell in the body because of its day-to-day role in regulating body chemistry. It is particularly important for helping nerves transmit signals, muscles contract, and for regulating your heartbeat and blood pressure.
Potassium also plays a role in maintaining bone density, and helping your kidneys move nutrients into cells and waste products out of them.
Why you need more
If you don’t get enough potassium, it can cause problems with your blood pressure, contribute to kidney stones, and reduce bone density. Low potassium levels can also lead to disorders with other nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium.
Older adults may experience decreased potassium levels due to inadequate daily food intake as well as from medications, such as those for high blood pressure, that can increase the body’s excretion of the mineral.
Most people don’t get enough potassium from their diet.
Women over age 50: 2,600 mg daily
Men over age 50: 3,400 mg daily
- Fruits (dried apricots, bananas, avocados, raisins) and orange juice
- Potatoes, acorn squash, broccoli, spinach, and tomatoes
- Lentils, kidney beans, soybeans, and nuts
- Milk and yogurt
- Salmon and other fish, meats, and poultry
- A multivitamin containing potassium
Too much potassium can be deadly, especially in older adults. As kidney function declines with age, so does the ability to get rid of potassium naturally in the body. High amounts of potassium can lead to muscle problems causing even paralysis. It can also lead to irregularities in heart signaling, causing abnormal heartbeats and even death.