The 5 Best Vitamins for People Over 50
Which supplements you should — and shouldn't — take for optimal health
(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com.)
One friend swears by CoQ10. Another insists she’d never make it out of bed without her vitamin D tablets. Your mother is shocked you don’t take a multivitamin. Your colleague believes if a little is a good thing, a lot must be better, so he takes way more than the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of various supplements.
There is a lot of good, a lot of bad and a whole lot of confusing information out there, making it tough to figure out which vitamins and supplements you should — and should not — be taking.
“People can get all the nutrition they need by eating a variety of foods, but dietary supplements in some cases can help people get adequate amounts of essential nutrients," says Carol Haggans, a scientific and health communications consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "There are some nutrients that can benefit people over 50."
Read on for our experts' top recommendations. (And check out this Frontline documentary from PBS on supplements and safety, released in January 2016.)
Vitamins That Belong On Your "To Take" List
These five vitamins are worth taking after age 50, experts say:
1. Daily multivitamin for seniors
Research hasn't proven whether multivitamins help you stay healthier longer, says Haggans. "They just help fill in nutrient gaps that you might not even be aware of; there doesn’t appear to be any harm in taking one as directed," she says.
Nutrient needs do vary by age, gender and life stage. For example, the RDA for vitamin D goes up as you age. Postmenopausal women don’t need as much iron as younger women. Experts agree it make sense to get a multivitamin marketed to seniors because manufacturers try to create the right balance to meet those needs.
“Centrum Silver is the most tested and I think it is a very good formula — we have no association with the company," notes Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com. "There are a lot of other companies that make the same formula now for less. Some good ones are Walmart’s Equate Mature Vitamin 50+, Dollar General DG Health Adult Formula and NatureMade Multi for Her.”
2. Vitamin B12
B12 is helpful for a lot of different things, such as metabolism, red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis. If you have a severe deficiency, that can cause anemia, fatigue, weakness and peripheral neuropathy, says Haggans.
Many older adults have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 that occurs naturally in food, though most wouldn't realize they fall into this category, she adds. "That's why it's recommended that all people over 50 get the recommended intake of vitamin B12 mainly from fortified food (like some breakfast cereals) or dietary supplements." The RDA is very small, so a regular multivitamin mineral supplement should help you achieve it.
“There has been a lot of research on the effect of calcium on bone health, and the results have not been cut and dried. For example, a recent analysis of 26 clinical trials found that calcium — with or without vitamin D — reduces the risk of total fractures of the vertebrae, but not fractures of the hip or forearm. We really don’t know why that is,” says Haggans. Calcium is a very bulky nutrient so you rarely find a multivitamin mineral supplement that has more than about 30 percent of the RDA.
Should you and your doctor decide you need to take a separate calcium supplement, you'll find that calcium pills come in two equally effective forms: calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate is absorbed best when taken with food and contains the most calcium per pill. Calcium citrate can be absorbed well on an empty stomach, plus people with digestive problems seem to absorb the citrate form better. (Again, stick to the RDA. Too much calcium has been shown to increase the risk of stroke and kidney stones, says Cooperman.)
4. Vitamin D
More than one in four Americans aged 50 to 71 are not getting enough vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium. “It helps with bone health, but also reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, asthma and allergy and inflammation,” says Cooperman. What's more, low levels of vitamin D are linked to a wide range of diseases including asthma, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, hypoglycemia, rheumatoid arthritis and depression.
The NIH recommends 600 IU of vitamin D daily for adults over age 50 and 800 IU for adults age 70+. Consult with your doctor to figure out what's right for you.
5. AREDS formulation for eye health
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS1 and AREDS 2), sponsored by the federal government’s National Eye Institute, found that taking a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein, zeaxanthin and zinc may slow the progression of advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and may play a role in cataract prevention.
If you scan the shelves of your local drugstore, you'll find many supplements promoted for "eye health" or that mention the "AREDS formula" or "AREDS study," but none are approved by the NIH or the Food and Drug Administration, says Haggans. Talk with your ophthalmologist for a recommendation.
You can also visit the National Eye Institute website and find the exact formulas used in the AREDS studies and then compare them to commercially available formulas.
Warning: More Does Not Always Mean Better
If you think taking more than the RDA can’t hurt, think again. “The RDA for all nutrients is set knowing that we don’t absorb all that we consume, even from food," cautions Haggans. "Most vitamins and minerals do have upper limits, over which they can cause health problems — iron, for example, can be fatal if you take too much. It is important to take any supplement as directed, and stick to RDAs." You can find the USDA’s RDA list here.
Which Supplements to Buy
Last February, the New York Attorney General accused four major retailers of selling adulterated supplements that didn’t contain advertised ingredients or had ingredients not listed on the label. With a little research, you can make safer choices.
There are three organizations that test individual products, and if the products pass, they are given their seal of approval, which will appear on the labels: ConsumerLab.com, United States Pharmacopoeial Convention and NSF International. USP and NSFI are voluntary organizations, meaning the companies have willingly come to them to have their products tested. ConsumerLab.com actually pulls items off shelves in stores and tests them independently. You can research results on any of the sites, although ConsumerLab.com is available by subscription only.
Also, beware of any supplements that promise quick, miraculous cures or scientific breakthroughs, mention secret ingredients or boast personal testimonials.
Remember: Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Safe
Just because a supplement is labeled “natural” doesn’t mean it can’t interact with other medications you are taking.
Vitamin K, for example, interferes with blood thinners like Coumadin. St. John’s wort interacts with antidepressants and birth control pills. Gingko and vitamin E tend to thin the blood so if you know you are having surgery, you should stop a couple of weeks ahead of time.
“This is why it is very important to have a discussion with your physician before adding a supplement regimen,” says Haggans. (For more on interactions, visit the NIH website.)