As you age, your nutrition needs change — your body needs higher amounts of certain vitamins and minerals and lower amounts of others. That's why the best multivitamin for seniors looks different than the daily vitamin a younger adult might take.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, senior vitamins typically contain more vitamin D and vitamin B12 and less iron. They might also contain herbs targeted toward memory and energy. While the best multivitamin for you depends on your lifestyle and health status, there are some general guidelines that you can use to help you choose one. Always talk to your doctor before adding a new supplement, though, especially if you're taking medication.
Look for Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is, hands down, one of the best vitamins for seniors. An article published in the winter 2012 issue of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences estimates that as many as 40 percent of older adults have a vitamin B12 deficiency, and most of those deficiencies are due to an inability to properly absorb the vitamin.
As you age, your body's ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases for a number of possible reasons. One of the most common is inflammation in the stomach and other digestive ailments that interfere with proper stomach acid production. Many older adults are also on medications that interfere with vitamin B12 absorption.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is a problem at any age, but it can become even more worrisome as you get older, since low vitamin B12 levels are connected to Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia and Parkinson's disease, according to an April 2012 report in International Psychogeriatrics.
Although the exact number isn't totally clear, 10 to 30 percent of older adults aren't able to absorb enough vitamin B12 from food. Because of that, the Linus Pauling Institute recommends that adults over the age of 50 take between 100 and 400 micrograms of supplemental vitamin B12 daily.
However, if you have problems absorbing vitamin B12, you might not be able to get adequate amounts from supplements either. In this case, you might need to get regular B12 injections to keep your levels high enough.
If you don't have problems absorbing vitamin B12, you can meet your needs through a combination of supplements and vitamin B12-rich foods, like:
- Grass-fed yogurt
- Grass-fed milk
Check the Vitamin D
Vitamin D is also a nutrient of concern as you get older. Much of the vitamin D in your body is made when your skin is exposed to the sun. As you age, your skin's ability to make vitamin D starts to decline, and this can put you at an increased risk of developing a deficiency. A decreased vitamin D intake, less time spent outdoors and an increase in body fat tissue also contribute to vitamin D deficiency risk.
While vitamin D is often connected to strong bones and a reduced risk of osteoporosis, a review that was published in the Journal of Aging and Gerontology in December 2014 points out that vitamin D deficiency is actually associated with several diseases and conditions associated with aging, including:
- Cognitive decline (dementia/Alzheimer's disease)
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
Because it's so difficult to get vitamin D from the food you eat, adults up to 70 years old should look for a multivitamin with a daily dose of 600 IU and adults aged 71 and older should go for 800 IU per day. It's also a good idea to eat lots of vitamin D-rich foods, like:
- Cod liver oil
Get Enough Calcium
Calcium and vitamin D go hand in hand. The two nutrients work together to keep your bones healthy and have been shown to reduce the risk of fractures and falls in older adults. If you don't get enough calcium — either from your diet or from supplements — your body can start to pull calcium from your bones, which can decrease your bone mass and increase your risk of developing osteoporosis.
Calcium also plays a role in maintaining a healthy blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease and preventing certain types of cancer.
The recommended dietary allowance (or RDA) for calcium is 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day for adults between 51 and 70 and 1,200 milligrams for adults aged 71 and older. However, the Linus Pauling Institute notes that there's no single multivitamin that contains the RDA for calcium since the pill would be too big to swallow.
- Grass-fed dairy products (milk, yogurt and cheese)
- Mustard greens
- Collard greens
- Canned salmon with bones
- Canned sardines with bones
For optimal absorption, Cleveland Clinic recommends limiting elemental calcium (or the active calcium in the supplement) to no more than 600 milligrams at a time. Making sure you're getting enough vitamin D also helps increase your body's absorption of calcium.
Make Sure It Has Omega-3s
As you age, your brain starts to lose the ability to absorb DHA, the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain's cell membranes. This can negatively affect memory and overall brain function. On the other hand, diets high in omega-3s have been linked to reduced risk of cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Omega-3s also help prevent inflammation and can protect your heart, reduce plaque in the arteries and help keep your blood sugar levels balanced.
Not all multivitamins contain omega-3 fatty acids, but it's worth the extra groundwork to find one that does. If you're a man 51 years or older, you'll need one that contains 1.6 grams or more. If you're a woman of the same age, you'll need 1.1 grams daily.
If you can't find a multivitamin that's rich in omega-3 fatty acids, you can add high-quality fish oils to your daily routine or increase your intake of omega-3 rich-foods, like:
- Flaxseeds/flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Wild Atlantic salmon
- Atlantic herring
- Sea bass
Best Vitamins for Seniors
Because the supplement industry isn't very tightly regulated, it can be difficult to navigate. In addition to paying attention to the quantities of all of the nutrients of concern, it's also important to make sure you're getting a high-quality supplement that doesn't have any fillers, artificial ingredients or added sugars.
The American Cancer Society provides some guidelines on how to choose a the best multivitamin for seniors and stay safe when taking supplements:
- Look for supplements that have USP or NF on the label. This means that the manufacturer of the product followed standards set by the US Pharmacopeia (or USP), an organization that develops quality standards for supplements.
- Realize that the use of the term "natural" isn't a guarantee that the product is safe. Even natural supplements can cause negative health problems.
- Consider the name and reputation of the manufacturer or distributor and do some research on whether or not there have been any claims made against them.
- Avoid products that claim to heal or treat a wide variety of conditions.
- Follow dosage instructions — either from the label or from your doctor.
- Start only one new supplement at a new time and avoid mixing a lot of different supplements, unless instructed to do so by your doctor.
If you're still not sure how to choose a high-quality supplement on your own, you can usually purchase them directly through your healthcare provider or a nutritionist who has done the legwork for you.
Read more: The Best Multivitamin for Women Over 60
Pay Attention to Drug Interactions
A report that was published in the Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics in July 2018 pointed out that 50 percent of older adults taking supplements were at risk for a potential drug interaction. To add to that, multivitamin supplements were the most common dietary supplements with a possible interaction.
That's because unlike individual supplements, multivitamins contain several different vitamins, minerals and herbal compounds that may interact with a specific medication.
That doesn't mean that multivitamin supplements are off limits if you're taking medication, but it's extremely important to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before you start a new supplement regimen. Don't assume that just because a supplement contains only vitamins and minerals or it's marketed as "natural" that it's safe to use with your medication.
Decide Whether You Need Supplements
All that being said, Harvard Health Publishing says that most seniors following a regular, healthy diet probably get enough nutrients from their diet. The National Institute on Aging adds that it's usually better to get the vitamins and minerals you need from your food, instead of a supplement, because healthy foods also have other beneficial nutrients, like fiber and protein.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you have a poor diet or you don't have a very good appetite, supplements can help bridge the gap between what you're getting from your food and what your body needs to stay healthy. Seniors who have trouble absorbing nutrients may also need the higher doses of vitamins and minerals that you get from supplements.
In addition to taking supplements if you need them, you can also keep yourself healthy as you age by:
If you're unsure about what route is best for you, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor or a qualified nutritionist who can help guide you and develop a healthy supplement regimen for you if you need one.
- AARP: "Supplements to Take in Your 50s, 60s and 70s"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Should You Take 'Senior' Multivitamins?"
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: "Micronutrients for Older Adults"
- National Institute on Aging: "Vitamins and Minerals"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Is There Really Any Benefit to Multivitamins?"
- National Council on Aging: "Healthy Eating Tips for Seniors"
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: "Healthy Eating As We Age"
- Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics: "Potential Dietary Supplement and Medication Interactions in a Subset of the Older Adult Population Attending Congregate Sites"
- Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences: "The Neuropsychiatry of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Elderly Patients"
- International Psychogeriatrics: "Cognitive Impairment and Vitamin B12: A Review"
- Journal of Aging and Gerontology: "The Role of Vitamin D in the Aging Adult"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Increasing Dietary Calcium"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- American Cancer Society: "Choosing and Using Dietary Supplements Safely"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin D"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Calcium"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The A List of B12 Foods"