A doctor holding up a red plastic heart.

Vitamins and Supplements for the Elderly

Last week chocolate was good for you and red wine was not so good. This week red wine is good for you and chocolate is only good in moderation. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about what foods, vitamins, and dietary supplements are good for us.

More and more, it is up to consumers of every age to self-educate on these matters, which is no easy task.

“It’s best to get nutrients from diet first before determining if you need dietary supplements,” said Carol Haggans, Scientific and Health Communications Consultant in the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov).

Which Vitamin is for You?

The doctor of the futureThat said, Ms. Haggans cautions that there are a few nutrients that our bodies need but that don’t get absorbed—especially as we age– and therefore we may need to take supplements:

–Vitamin B12. “Vitamin B12 is only available in animal products so any vegetarians at any age and vegans need to supplement,” she said. “People over fifty have trouble absorbing B12 from food, even if they are eating enough.” Ms. Haggans said that vitamin B12 might be available in fortified cereals as well as animal products. There is no risk in getting too much vitamin B12, Ms. Haggans said, but there is a recommended amount depending on the individual. “It is not considered toxic at any dose,” she said.

–Vitamin D and calcium. “The need for vitamin D and calcium increases with age,” said Ms. Haggans, noting that fortified milk and fatty fish are sources for these. The exact amount of calcium needed depends on age and gender, however it is possible to get too much and develop kidney stones, she said. “While we can make vitamin D from sun exposure, a lot of older people don’t get out in the sun very much or they wear protective clothing,” explained Ms. Haggans.

–Iron. “Pre-menopausal women need more iron,” said Ms. Haggans. “Post-menopausal women can risk taking too much iron.” To avoid possible toxicity with taking iron, Ms. Haggans recommends that people check the label of any multivitamins to verify the amount of iron, if any, that is included.

The Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health provides an online alphabetical list of dietary supplement fact sheets at http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/, and additional information can be found at http://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx.