Optimize Your Health: Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for Older Adults

| Health and Wellness

Adult man looking at medication in pharmacy


Are you getting all of the nutrients you need? If you’re age 50 or older and still eating the way you did at 40 or 30, it’s time to rethink your diet. As we age, we need more of certain nutrients. Knowing what to aim for each day will help you change your eating habits and identify gaps where supplements could help.

Nutrition challenges for seniors

Seniors may need supplements because of age-related challenges. As we get older, our appetites tend to decrease. Some seniors have oral health problems or difficulty with chewing or swallowing. Single or low-income seniors may have a poor diet. Those with mobility or dexterity challenges may have trouble getting groceries or cooking meals. Social isolation, depression and other issues can decrease the motivation to eat well. Medications can reduce a senior’s appetite or sense of taste or smell. People with restricted diets, food allergies or certain medical conditions may also need supplements.

Eat a healthy diet

Whenever possible, we should get our nutrients from food. Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole-grain foods and protein foods; limiting highly processed foods; making water your drink of choice; and reading the Nutrition Facts Table on packaged foods.

To boost your nutrient intake, first modify your diet. (For advice, ask your physician or a registered dietitian.) If it’s difficult for you to meet your nutritional needs through diet alone, vitamin or mineral supplements can help.

These are the nutrients that older adults often lack:

Nutrient: Calcium

What it does: Calcium keeps bones strong and helps prevent osteoporosis. It also helps your heart, muscles and nerves function well.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men aged 51–70: 1,000 mg; women aged 51–70: 1,200 mg; adults over age 70: 1,200 mg (younger adults need 1,000 mg daily)

Maximum per day: 2,000 mg

Sources: Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and alternatives (fortified soy, almond or rice beverage, tofu prepared with calcium sulfate); fortified orange juice; dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli, collards, turnip greens); fish (canned sardines or salmon with bones); almonds; beans; tahini; blackstrap molasses.

Tips: Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, which is why some supplements contain both. Caffeine, alcohol and smoking impair calcium absorption. Foods containing oxalates (beans, spinach, sweet potatoes, rhubarb) also lower calcium absorption, but Dietitians of Canada says, “you do not need to avoid these foods if you are meeting your calcium needs and following Canada’s Food Guide.”


Nutrient: Vitamin D

What it does: Vitamin D (the “sunshine vitamin”) helps your body absorb calcium. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include muscle weakness, fatigue, pain and depression.

Recommended intake per day: Health Canada recommends: adults up to age 70: 600 IU; adults aged 71 and older: 800 IU.

Maximum per day: 4,000 IU (including food and supplements)

Sources: “Vitamin D occurs naturally in very few foods,” says Health Canada. Cow’s milk, fortified yogurt; fortified plant-based beverages, fortified orange juice, fatty fish (salmon, sardines, rainbow trout, snapper), egg yolks, margarine, cod liver oil. Your body produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but this is affected by season, weather, sunscreen use, time spent outdoors, skin colour, age (we produce less vitamin D as we get older) and other factors. We shouldn’t rely solely on sunlight for vitamin D – especially since sun exposure is the major cause of skin cancer.

Tips: Health Canada recommends that people over age 50 take a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 International Units (IU).


Nutrient: Vitamin B6

What it does: Vitamin B6 serves many purposes in the body, including bolstering the immune system, helping to convert carbohydrates into glucose, producing brain chemicals, metabolizing protein and much more.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men over age 50: 1.7 mg; women over age 50: 1.5 mg

Maximum per day: 100 mg

Sources: Tuna, salmon, beef liver, chickpeas, poultry, fortified cereals, beans, potatoes. dark leafy greens, papayas, bananas, cantaloupes, oranges.

Tips: Over age 50, we need more vitamin B6 than younger adults do. Your physician can check your B6 levels with a blood test.


Nutrient: Vitamin B12

What it does: We need vitamin B12 for healthy nerves and blood cells. A lack of B12 can also cause anemia, whose symptoms include weakness, fatigue and difficulty with thinking, memory and concentration. To determine your level of vitamin B12, your doctor can order a blood test.

Recommended Daily Amount: 2.4 mcg

Sources: Milk products, plant-based beverages, organ meat, tuna, salmon, beef, pork, fortified soy burgers.

Tips: As we get older, we’re less able to absorb vitamin B12. Aim to include vitamin-B12-fortified foods in your daily diet, and talk to your physician about supplements.

Proceed with caution

Before you go to the drugstore, let’s talk about what supplements won’t do for you. They won’t boost your energy, decrease stress, prevent cancer, prevent dementia or provide the same benefits you would get from eating a healthy diet (fibre, carbohydrates, fat, protein and calories), cautions Dietitians of Canada.

We should also treat supplements with respect. Taken in large amounts, some vitamins and minerals can cause harmful side effects. For example, excessive calcium can cause constipation or kidney stones. Too much vitamin A can cause nausea and headaches; over the long term, it can lead to bone thinning, liver damage and other serious side effects.

Some supplements can affect the potency of prescription medications. Mixing supplements with medication can be harmful or even fatal. Before you start a new supplement – even a multivitamin – it’s best to consult your physician or a registered dietitian first. And it’s always wise to let your health care providers know about supplements, over-the-counter medications and natural health products you’re taking.

Last but not least: when you buy any natural health care product, check the label for a Drug Identification Number (DIN) or Natural Product Number (NPN). This means that Health Canada has reviewed the product’s quality, safety and health claims. You can also check the Licensed Natural Health Products Database.

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