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Should I Take a Supplement?

Nutrients Needed as You Age

If you can’t get the nutrients you need from your diet alone, dietary supplements can help you bridge the gap.

Dietary supplements come in a wide variety of forms, from pills, capsules, and powders to gels, liquids, and extracts. Most traditional supplements contain vitamins and minerals or fiber, but plants and herbs, amino acids, and enzymes are also increasingly popular. Supplements don’t typically require a prescription from your doctor, and while they can’t replace healthy eating, they can sometimes provide that extra boost you need.

Why Might Older Adults Need Supplements?

The best way to get nutrients is through a healthy diet of whole foods, explains Melanie Moyers, a licensed registered dietitian-nutritionist and dietitian consultant for Morning Pointe Senior Living. “Food contains protective substances that occur naturally, like phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber, which work together to help prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Foods are naturally built to provide what our body needs.”

However, it’s not always easy to get all of your nutrients from diet alone, especially as you get older. 

woman preparing to take a pill

Moyers explains, “The natural process of aging results in lower ability to absorb nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract, along with a decline in appetite. This means as you age, you aren’t eating as much and aren’t absorbing as much from the food you eat.” Other issues, like dental problems that cause a decline in chewing ability and prescription drugs that reduce appetite, can further hinder your nutrient consumption. In these situations, you might be encouraged to try a supplement to boost your intake of nutrients.

Necessary Nutrients At 50

Whether they come from your diet alone, or you consume supplements to reach healthy levels, your body starts to require additional nutrients as you age. For instance, your health care provider may want you to increase your calcium and vitamin D, which work together to ward off or slow bone loss to prevent fractures. Milk and milk products are the best-known sources for calcium, and the sun is a valuable source of vitamin D. When those don’t do the trick themselves, supplements can bridge the gap. The recommended dose of vitamin D is 600 international units for both men and women, and for calcium, typical doses are 1,000 milligrams (mg) for men and 1,200 mg for women.

Changes at 60

Once you enter your 60s, trusting your gut to absorb enough nutrients from food gets trickier. If you’re not careful, you may set yourself up for deficiencies with big consequences. “Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in cognitive decline and more severe dementia,” explains Moyers. Have your medical professional check your levels to see if you could benefit from a B12 supplement. Nutritionists recommend 2.4 micrograms (mcg) each day.

Vitamin B6 is also important, since it works with B12 to keep your red blood cells healthy. Present in potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and fortified cereals, B6 is easier to come across in a fairly typical diet. Ideally, you should be getting 1.7 mg for men or 1.5 mg for women daily. Keep a food diary to share with your physician to see if you are getting enough vitamins in your diet, or if you need a supplement.

Protein at 70

As you reach your 70s, it’s important to be mindful of your protein intake in addition to the other vitamins and minerals. Your body’s ability to build muscle mass declines, which will make your immune system less efficient. This is a time when your appetite may lessen as well, so you may need to add protein powders or supplements to do the job. Twenty to 30 grams of whey protein powder in a yummy shake daily can make all the difference in building lean muscle mass. Your best food sources are chicken, beef, beans, and almonds.

Fiber is also important as you get older. “The digestive system slows down, and constipation is more common,” says Moyers. “Fiber helps prevent constipation in addition to helping lower cholesterol, decreasing risk for colon cancer, and helping regulate blood sugar levels.”

How does the FDA regulate supplements?

“Dietary supplements are not categorized as drugs, so they are not tested for safety and approved by the FDA before being sold to the public. Consumers need to be aware that just because a supplement is being sold on a shelf doesn’t confirm that it is safe, that the claim on the label is accurate, and the amount on the label is actually in the supplement.”

Making the Right Choice

Deciding to take supplements should begin with a knowledgeable source like a nutritionist or health care provider. “He or she can review your diet to identify nutrients you may be lacking and try to help you balance it to get nutrients from food first,” says Moyers.

If you decide supplements will be beneficial, do your research. Some supplements work better than others, and you have to make sure you don’t take something that might counteract another medication. You should also check the science behind any advertisements to avoid being coerced into buying something that may prove useless and expensive. “You need to know if there are safety risks, what the proper dose to take is, and how long you should take it,” explains Moyers.

Your doctor will need to be aware of all the prescriptions you are taking, plus any over-the-counter items you use. While neighbors and friends may have recommendations for what worked for them, your health is always specific, so get exactly what your provider suggests, and follow dosing instructions closely.

By taking care to eat well, exercise, and take supplements as needed, you can push back the health problems that used to plague seniors. Know what you need, follow through, and you can set yourself up for decades of golden years. HS

Melanie Moyers

Melanie Moyers

Licensed Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and Dietitian Consultant, Morning Pointe Senior Living

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