The Only 5 Supplements Older Adults Need to Know

By Barbara Brody |

Read this before you buy another bottle of vitamins or minerals.


Which supplements are worth your money? Ask 10 different people and you'll likely hear 10 different answers, most involving a dietary supplement that's magically cured an ailment of some sort.

But can you guess how many supplements experts think all older adults should take? The answer: Zero. Nada.

That might be a little shocking, especially if your medicine cabinet is jammed with pills that you’ve been led to believe will make you stronger, boost your energy, preserve your memory, and protect against heart disease and cancer.

About half of people over 65 purchase dietary supplements, but experts say that cash would be better spent on fresh produce and well-fitting sneakers.

“I think supplements are seen by many as only having the potential for benefit, but there is a real risk of harm,” says Stephanie Nothelle, M.D., post-doctoral research fellow in general internal medicine at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Dr. Nothelle notes that many supplements have side effects and can interact with common prescription medications. Staying safe gets even trickier if you're an older adult taking multiple meds.

There’s also a chance that you might not be getting what the bottle says, she adds, since supplements aren’t regulated the same way as drugs.

And there’s another good reason why you may not benefit from supplements: You’re getting everything you need naturally, thanks to a healthy diet and lifestyle.

"For a healthy older adult, I do not routinely recommend any supplements," says Dr. Nothelle, who specializes in healthcare for older adults. "The best form of vitamins is from the foods we eat. I recommend that all older adults eat a balanced diet of whole, minimally processed foods."

The NIH's National Institute on Aging (NIA) agrees. The organization says that "most, if not all, of your daily vitamins and minerals should come from food."

Learn more about how to meet your daily needs in our guide to the new food pyramid for older adults.

That said, some older adults do need more of certain nutrients. Here are the five supplements to talk about with your doctor.

1. Vitamin D

"Until recently, many clinicians routinely recommended vitamin D to prevent falls," Dr. Nothelle says. "But the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force no longer recommends using vitamin D to prevent falls. It does recommend structured exercise programs."

In other words, being active is more important.

Since your body makes vitamin D when exposed to sun, you might already be getting plenty-or not. Older adults who don't spend as much time outside or who have skin changes that slow down the body's production of vitamin D may need extra vitamin D, Dr. Nothelle says.

Talk to your doctor about your diet and lifestyle, and ask if you’re getting enough vitamin D.

2. Vitamin B12

This nutrient keeps nerve and blood cells healthy and protects against a type of anemia that can make you feel exhausted.

"Vitamin B12 needs acid from the stomach to be properly absorbed," Dr. Nothelle says. Some seniors develop pernicious anemia, a condition where the stomach makes less acid. If you take acid reflux medication (proton pump inhibitors, like Prilosec) or blood sugar medication (like metformin) you might need more vitamin B12.

Again, don't start taking it before checking with your doctor. "Like vitamin D, vitamin B12 levels can be measured in the blood," Dr. Nothelle says, "so treatment with a supplement can be monitored."

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3. Calcium

Doctors used to recommend that all women over 50 take calcium to help combat osteoporosis. But more recent research has shown some serious downsides to calcium supplements, such as an increased risk of a heart attack.

Adults over age 50 often do need extra calcium, Dr. Nothelle says, but it doesn't have to come in pill form. "Eating plenty of dairy, canned fish with soft bones, and dark, leafy greens like kale may be a safer option," she says.

Need meal inspiration? Try a hearty kale salad or an open-faced tuna and veggie sandwich. Get the recipes here.

4. Vitamin B6

Along with calcium and vitamins D and B12, vitamin B6 makes the NIA's list of nutrients that older adults sometimes need to boost. Vitamin B6 helps protect nerves and form red blood cells. Potatoes, bananas, and chicken are good sources. Your doctor can do a blood test to check your level.

5. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

This supplement is crucial to the functioning of your mitochondria, the power plants in your cells. In fact, some studies link ALCAR supplements with fighting age-related fatigue and cognitive decline.

The NIH Office of Dietary Supplements says ALCAR may be helpful for people with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease. In the studies, subjects took 1.5 to 3.0 grams a day of acetyl-L-carnitine for 3 to 12 months.

As always, check with your doctor about the right dose for you, if any.

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