Which Supplements Should I Take after 50? Are Some a Waste of Money?

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Taking a dietary supplement or two (or five) every day isn't exactly uncommon. About 70 percent of adults age 60 and older reported taking at least one supplement in the last month — be it a multivitamin or a chocolate-flavored calcium chew. About 30 percent took at least four, research shows.

AARP’s recent article entitled “The 3 Supplements You Might Actually Need After 50” explains that most older adults can get the nutrients they need from foods in a varied, healthy diet. But if you’re worried that you’re missing the nutritional mark (your doctor can test you for a deficiency), there are only three supplements worth considering.

Calcium. As we age, our bodies don’t absorb vitamins and minerals as well as they did in the past. Calcium is a major issue, and a deficiency can result in bone fractures and falls. If you fail to get enough calcium from dairy, leafy greens and other calcium-rich foods, your body sources it from your bones, which makes them weaker. Moreover, a lack of consistent, weight-bearing exercise can exacerbate this problem. The NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements says here’s the amount of calcium we you need:

  • 1,200 milligrams (mg) calcium per day for women aged 51 and older
  • 1,000 mg calcium per day for men aged 51 to 70 and
  • 1,200 mg calcium per day for men aged 71 and older.

Try to get as much calcium as you can from healthy foods — dairy, broccoli, kale, salmon, sardines and various calcium-fortified grains. Only take a calcium supplement, if your doctor says you’re not getting enough from your diet.

Vitamin D. Calcium works best when it’s taken with vitamin D, which assists in its absorption from the gut. Vitamin D is also essential for bone health and supports the immune and nervous systems and may even benefit the heart. A vitamin D deficiency is often the result of obesity and not enough safe exposure to sunlight. Here’s how much vitamin D you need, according to the NIH:

  • 15 micrograms (mcg) / 600 international units (IU) per day for adults 19 to 70 years old; or
  • 20 mcg / 800 IU per day for 71-year-olds and older.

If you take a vitamin D supplement, take it with food for optimal absorption, such as with a meal or snack that contains a bit of fat. Make sure to talk to your doctor about whether vitamin D2 or D3 is more appropriate for you.

Vitamin B12. As for B12, older adults are at a disadvantage because aging impacts the body’s ability to absorb this essential nutrient, which plays an important role in regulating blood, nerve and genetic health. Seniors who are vegetarian or vegan, who take the antidiabetic medication metformin or who take gastric acid inhibitors to treat certain digestion problems are even more likely to be B12-deficient. Like with vitamin D, people with Crohn’s or celiac disease are also more likely to have a B12 deficiency. A B12 deficiency can cause anemia and lead to neuropathy or nerve damage, balance issues, depression, confusion, poor memory and dementia.

The NIH recommends that adults, on average, get 2.4 mcg per day of vitamin B12. You can get what you need from fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, clams, beef liver and some fortified cereals.  Many multivitamin supplements also contain this key nutrient, or you can take it on its own.

Many other dietary supplements lack solid data to support their regular use, and in fact, you might want to steer clear of a few altogether.

Vitamin E. A vitamin E deficiency is rare in most healthy people—even if your diet is short on the recommended daily amount (15 mg for adults). The vitamin E is naturally present in food and causes no harm and does not need to be limited. However, getting too much from a supplement can be dangerous.

Vitamin C. Despite popular belief, there’s no solid data to demonstrate that loading up on vitamin C will prevent or cure the common cold. It’s a myth. Taking too much vitamin C can also cause diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps. Eat citrus fruits and vegetables instead to get the recommended amount needed to support your overall health.

Folic Acid. For most people, there’s no need to take this B vitamin because many foods, like cereals, are fortified with folate. Folic acid deficiency is rare in the U.S. (one exception is during pregnancy.).

Reference: AARP (July 21, 2021) “The 3 Supplements You Might Actually Need After 50”