As we grow older and our bodies and lifestyles change, our nutritional needs change, as well. We need about 20 percent fewer calories at age 80 than at age 30. About two-thirds of this decrease can be blamed on a more sedentary lifestyle that often comes with getting older, and the rest on a lower metabolic rate.
Although healthy older adults who eat a balanced diet don't need a dietary supplement, several aspects of aging may increase the likelihood of a deficiency in key vitamins and minerals, according to the National Institute on Aging. These include having a reduced sense of taste and smell; spending more time indoors; difficulty chewing; following a restricted diet because of a health condition; eating alone; experiencing loss of appetite; and taking medications that may prevent absorption of vitamins and minerals. Older adults also are at higher risk for dehydration because they may not notice when they are thirsty.
As we age, our bodies do not process and absorb certain important nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D, as well as they used to. In addition, many people don't get adequate amounts of calcium. Here's why each of these nutrients is vital for good health:
Vitamin B12 may help reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke, and helps protect against memory problems, dementia and balance and walking problems. Getting enough of this vitamin usually isn't a problem if your diet includes animal products. In older adults, however, vitamin B12 can be more difficult to absorb because of too little stomach acid. The stomach acid separates the vitamin B12 from the protein that contains it, allowing the body to make use of the vitamin. Antacids and H2 blockers also can affect how well this vitamin is absorbed. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), research is underway to determine how much folic acid, B6, and/or B12 is required to lower homocysteine levels. Elevated homocysteine levels have been linked to heart disease. At this time, however, the AHA does not recommend using folic acid or vitamin B supplements to prevent heart disease or stroke.
Vitamin D helps the body process calcium and keeps bones strong. Because we get vitamin D from the action of sunlight on the skin, people who don't get outdoors much, or always wear sunscreen, may need a vitamin D supplement. This also affects people who live north of the 45th parallel. Vitamin D is added to many foods, such as cereals and some dairy products.
Calcium helps keep bones, muscles, and nerves healthy. Osteoporosis, which causes bones to thin and increases the risk for fractures, is a serious concern for women. Women of all ages may find it challenging to get enough calcium through food alone. Men are also susceptible to osteoporosis, especially if they take certain medications (like prednisone) for a long time. When choosing a calcium supplement, read the label to make sure it contains enough elemental calcium, which is the amount that the body absorbs from the supplement.
Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as beta carotene and lycopene, are antioxidants from food that may help slow the aging process and help fight cancer and heart disease. Vitamins C and E from food are associated with lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Supplements don't provide the same protection against heart disease and cancer as food.
Here are the DRIs for older adults from the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. These are the recommended intake levels for each age group.
Vitamin A, 900 micrograms
Vitamin C, 90 milligrams (mg)
Vitamin D, 15 micrograms
Vitamin E, 15 mg
Vitamin B6, 1.5 mg
Vitamin B12, 2.4 micrograms
Folate, 400 micrograms
Iron, 8 mg
Calcium, 1,000 mg
Niacin, 14 mg
Vitamin A, 700 micrograms
Vitamin C, 75 mg
Calcium, 1,200 mg
Vitamin C, 90 mg
Vitamin D, 20 micrograms
Vitamin B6, 1.7 mg
Niacin, 16 mg
It's important to note that some vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, D, E, and B6, and iron, can be harmful in excess or for people with particular diseases or conditions. Research has found that up to 10 percent of older adults unnecessarily get 10 times the RDA (recommended daily amount) of certain vitamins. Talk with your health care provider to help assess how dietary and exercise habits have affected your overall nutritional needs as you get older. Together, you can determine whether taking multivitamin and mineral supplements is warranted.