5 health-boosting supplements for older adults

Eating a variety of healthy foods has many benefits. A big one? It’s the best way to get the vitamins and minerals the body needs.1 For people who may not get those vitamins and minerals from food alone, there are dietary supplements.

Dietary supplements can include vitamins and minerals.2 They can also contain herbs and live microbials (probiotics). And they’re popular. Nearly 3 in 5 adults surveyed reported taking at least 1 dietary supplement in the previous 30 days.3 That number shot up to nearly 70% of men and about 80% of women  aged 60 and over.3

It’s true that supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet. “Supplements can fill in the gaps here and there, but they can’t replace the benefits of healthy food choices,” says Sergio Alvarez, M.D., medical director of Mia Aesthetics in Miami. But some people do need the help.

Some people take supplements because of a health problem that makes it hard to absorb certain vitamins or minerals, explains Dr. Alvarez. Others use supplements because they have concerns about their diet. 

Adults who are 50 years old and older may need more of certain vitamins and minerals than younger people do.4 If people are unsure whether they fit in this category, Dr. Alvarez recommends that they talk to a primary care provider (PCP). A PCP can also tell whether the supplements may have the potential to cause problems with any medications people take. Or if a person may be in danger of getting too much of a certain vitamin (such as vitamin A, for instance). 

That said, there are 5 dietary supplements that Dr. Alvarez recommends for older adults — with a PCP’s approval.

1. Calcium

Calcium keeps bones strong. This is important in older adults, “whose bones can sometimes become more brittle with age,” Dr. Alvarez says.

It also helps muscles, nerves and blood vessels work correctly.5 

Why people may need a supplement: If you are lactose intolerant or don’t eat or drink enough dairy foods, you may not be getting enough calcium. 

Recommended daily dose: 1,000 milligrams for men up to 70 years old; 1,200 milligrams daily for women 51 years and older and men 71 years and older.5

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2. Vitamin D

The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium from the foods that are eaten, explains Dr. Alvarez. “This is an important supplement to consider,” he says, because of the bone-fortifying benefits of calcium.

Vitamin D may also strengthen muscles, which is also important for older adults. Stronger muscles can lower the chances of falling.6

Why people may need a supplement: People get vitamin D from exposure to sunlight.6 But if they spend more time indoors or live in a state where it’s hard to get enough sunlight during winter months, they may need to take a vitamin D supplement.6 

Recommended daily dose: 600 international units (IU) for adults ages 19 to 69; 800 IU for adults 70 and older.6

3. Fish oil (omega- 3s)

Oil from such fatty fish as mackerel, trout and salmon has 2 important omega-3 fatty acids. Those are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).7 Shellfish also has DHA and EPA. 

“We have known for some time that the oils found in fish can help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke, which becomes increasingly important as we age,” says Dr. Alvarez. It may also lower the chances of developing advanced prostate cancer.7

Why people may need a supplement: “If you already eat fish twice a week, you may not need the extra boost a supplement can provide,” says Dr. Alvarez. Don’t eat fish that often? Taking a fish oil supplement may be beneficial. 

Be sure to look for fish oil and avoid fish liver oil though. “Fish liver oil can contain too much vitamin A, leading to headaches, itchy skin, jaundice, bone pain and an increased risk of osteoporosis,” Dr. Alvarez says.

Recommended dose: There is no recommended dose for fish oil supplements, so ask a provider what’s best.

4. Vitamin B12

“Vitamin B12 helps protect nerve function and red blood cell production, which helps prevent anemia,” says Dr. Alvarez. (When a person has anemia, the body doesn’t produce enough healthy red blood cells, which bring oxygen to body tissues.) 

Why people may need a supplement: Vitamin B12 needs don’t change as adults age. But older adults may have trouble absorbing the B12 they take in through their food, says Dr. Alvarez. 

This is particularly important for vegetarians and vegans, since vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal products and fortified foods such as cereal. 

Recommended daily dose: 2.4 micrograms per day

5. Magnesium

This mineral keeps the body running smoothly. It regulates nerves and muscles. It also keeps blood sugar and blood pressure stable. Plus, it’s important for bone health.8

Why people may need a supplement: Not getting enough magnesium has been associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis, says Dr. Alvarez. But older adults tend not to get enough magnesium from food, he adds. This is also true of people with gastrointestinal conditions, such as celiac disease, and those with type 2 diabetes.8

Recommended daily dose: Men over 50 need 410 milligrams per day. Women over 50 need 320 milligrams a day, says Dr. Alvarez. 

What supplement brands are recommended?

When talking to a provider to ensure which supplements to take, ask that provider — or a pharmacist — which brand they recommend, advises Dr. Alvarez. He also suggests looking for supplements that have been approved by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International. That will be noted on the product label. 

What about multivitamins? “There is no established standard for what a multivitamin should include,” says Dr. Alvarez. “This means that even if you do have a particular deficiency in your diet, a multivitamin could be a hit or miss in addressing it.”

This, again, is why it’s key to talk to a provider. And to keep eating healthy foods. It’s the best way to get the right amount of everything.

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