Vitamins for Seniors
You’re taking your vitamin and mineral supplements regularly every day. You’re also wondering if what you are taking is enough or whether there is something more you need to add. Did you know that these costly supplements might not be necessary or could even harm your health?
Read on if you are one of the 81% of people over 55 in the U.S. who takes nutritional supplements – often four or more a day. Find out why vitamins and minerals are necessary for maintaining optimal health. Also, learn about the best way for you to get these nutrients, and which vitamins for seniors are needed.
The Importance of Vitamins and Minerals
Every minute there are around 60 million chemical reactions in our cells. For these reactions to take place, our body is constantly manufacturing a large variety of enzymes, neurotransmitters, hormones and more. This is why we need to consume the necessary vitamins, minerals and various micronutrients.
So eating is not just about providing our bodies with calories for energy. We need to provide it with the variety of nutrients required to keep everything working effectively.
Food — the Best Source of Nutrients
Nutrients in the food we eat are in a different form and are also absorbed differently from those in supplements. Studies have shown that when vitamins and minerals are obtained from a varied diet of healthy, natural foods it helps to maintain health and ward off chronic disease. The same is not necessarily true when these nutrients are consumed in the form of supplements.
Besides the essential vitamins and minerals, we also need a great variety of micronutrients, such as antioxidant polyphenols. These are provided mainly by fruits and vegetables. While we only need these in small amounts, they are generally not found in supplements.
To date there is little scientific evidence that supplements prevent disease. They are also not a miracle cure for disease — unless the symptoms are caused by a deficiency of a particular vitamin or mineral.
Also of note is that the FDA does not regulate the supplement industry in the same way as medicine. In other words, there is no control over whether the supplements you buy contain the exact ingredients specified on the label or have the effect claimed by the manufacturers.
Furthermore, when you consume more of a specific vitamin or mineral than what your body needs it is usually excreted – in other words you might be wasting your money. In addition, at excessively high dosages some vitamins and minerals could be toxic and actually cause disease. This is a particular risk in seniors where elimination might be compromised by the normal effects of aging or particular health conditions.
So, before you start taking any vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements, it is best to discuss it with your health care provider.
Why Seniors Might Lack Certain Vitamins and Minerals
There are a number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies which are common in seniors. This is why doctors often, during regular check-ups, order blood tests to determine the levels of important nutrients.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies in seniors have a variety of causes, which include:
- Normal aging, which could affect absorption and elimination.
- Not eating a varied, healthy diet for various reasons like poor appetite, inability or lack of motivation to prepare healthy meals, or financial constraints.
- Difficulty in chewing certain foods.
- Health conditions which affect normal absorption or where more of certain nutrients are needed for healing and repair.
- Medications which affect the absorption of specific nutrients.
Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Seniors
According to the National Institutes of Health the elderly are often deficient in vitamins D, B6, B12 and the minerals calcium and potassium. Another significant mineral which has received more attention recently is magnesium.
You probably know that calcium is necessary for building strong bones and preventing osteoporosis in the elderly. What is less common knowledge is that it is also needed for many other important body functions, such as contraction and relaxation of muscles, including the heart muscle, nerve signaling and blood clotting.
A shortage of calcium can cause muscle weakness and cramps, and mental symptoms such as fatigue and confusion. The best food sources or calcium are:
- Dairy products.
- Leafy, green vegetables.
However, calcium intake above the normal daily requirement is dangerous and can cause various symptoms including nausea and vomiting, frequent urination, weakness and muscle pain. Hypercalcaemia has also been linked to kidney stones and cancer. This condition might result from specific diseases, but is often seen from taking too many calcium supplements. More is not always better!
2. Vitamin D
This vitamin has various functions in the body. Vitamin D is necessary to maintain blood levels of calcium and phosphorous. More recently new discoveries have emphasized its role in maintaining a healthy immune system, heart health, mood, protecting against certain cancers and more.
Vitamin D is often referred to as the sunshine vitamin because most of it is manufactured by our skin when exposed to sunlight — another healthy reason to take regular long walks. Dietary sources of vitamin D are fatty fish, red meat, eggs and liver, but we usually do not get enough from diet alone.
It is estimated that up to 70% of individuals develop a vitamin D deficiency during the cold winter months in the northern hemisphere. This is most likely for those with darker skin and in elderly where their skin’s ability to manufacture vitamin D is reduced. This is why healthcare providers often recommend this supplementation for seniors.
3. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is essential for manufacturing red blood cells and maintaining optimal brain function. Older people with a vitamin B deficiency are at a higher risk of dementia.
The main source of vitamin B 12 is animal products, so vegetarians and vegans are at highest risk of a deficiency. In the elderly, reduced stomach acid might affect vitamin B12 absorption, putting them at risk as well.
Your health care provider may therefore recommend a supplement containing this vitamin.
4. Vitamin B6
One of the most important functions of vitamin B6 is the part it plays in producing hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen to every part of the body). Vitamin B6 also plays a part in healthy brain function and in manufacturing a number of different hormones.
Vitamin B is not stored in the body, so we need to consume it every day. A varied diet should provide enough of this vitamin. Sources include:
- Meat and fish.
- Pulses, such as beans and chickpeas.
- Whole grains.
Potassium, together with sodium, is responsible for electrical conduction in the body and so affects fluid balance, nerve signals, muscle contraction and heart function. A severe potassium deficiency can be life-threatening.
However, we usually get enough potassium from our daily food intake. The best sources are fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables and fish.
Symptoms of potassium deficiency include muscle pain and cramping, weakness and dizziness and possibly fluid retention. These are the symptoms we are familiar with after a bout of vomiting and diarrhea excessive sweating from heat or after exercise. This is usually managed with an electrolyte drink.
Excessive potassium either from reduced kidney function or supplements can also cause irregular heartbeats which could be fatal. This is why, unless it is a low dosage in an electrolyte beverage or general multivitamin supplement, you should only take additional potassium if it is prescribed by a health care provider.
The mineral magnesium is the fourth most common element in the body and involved in over 300 biochemical reactions. This includes energy production, muscle movement, heart function and nerve signaling.
About half of U.S. adults have a mild magnesium deficiency and seniors are more likely to be affected due to decreased intake, lower absorption and increased elimination. Low magnesium levels have been linked to chronic conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 Diabetes, dementia, muscular pains and fatigue.
Our main source of magnesium is drinking water. Foods high in magnesium are mostly those that are high in fiber, including green leafy vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds.
Lowdown on Vitamins and Minerals for Seniors
Besides calories for energy, we need the essential vitamins and minerals to support all the chemical processes taking place in our body. These nutrients are necessary for us to stay physically and mentally healthy and lower our risk of disease.
Nutrition experts believe that even the elderly can get all the nutrients they need from a varied diet which includes all the food groups and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Also, nutrients obtained from food are superior to those provided by dietary supplements.
Furthermore, supplements might have unwanted side effects. You could safely take a daily general vitamin and mineral supplement just to fill in what your diet might not provide. The dosages in these supplements are usually below the recommended daily requirement.
Other than that, you should only take supplements you actually need. Do your research before believing the claims of your well-meaning neighbor or the manufacturers and always discuss your dietary supplements with your healthcare provider.