Vitamins for seniors
Many people are taking supplements without really considering if they need them.
BY: Mayura Mohta
Research studies show that those aged 65 and older are taking vitamin and mineral supplements to not only help prevent diseases, but sustain good health and longevity. Some common supplements include those that enhance vitality and energy levels, strengthen bone health, relieve joint pain and arthritis, help with better memory, and maintain general wellness. However, some people may not really know what they are taking.
What happens as we age?
To understand the need for vitamin and mineral supplements, it is important to understand the changes that the body goes through as one ages. Although there are many theories about ageing and the decline of body functions, listed below are some of the popular theories for loss of optimal health:
- THE WEAR AND TEAR OF BODY SYSTEMS: It is believed that the body and its cells get damaged by dietary abuse – as a result of excess consumption of fat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, exposure to the sun’s rays as well as other physical and mental stresses.
- THE NEUROENDOCRINE CHANGES: As we age, the body produces lower levels of hormones (human growth hormone, testosterone, thyroid hormone, DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone, etc), which can have disastrous effects on overall body function such as muscle building, repair and metabolism.
- THE FREE RADICAL DAMAGE: A free radical is a negatively-charged molecule produced by the body because of various metabolic processes. These free radicals are unstable and cause damage at the cellular level. This is commonly referred to as ‘oxidation’ and can be reversed by the intake of antioxidants that neutralise the free radicals and prevent cellular damage.
- THE GENETIC INHERITANCE: The genes that are inherited from our ancestors predetermine the tendency to certain types of physical and mental functioning such as cancer, heart disease, etc.
- LOSS OF ENERGY: A decline in the number of mitochondria (energy-producing organelles in the cells that produce ATP (Adenosine-5’-triphosphate)), the main source of energy or extensive DNA damage to the cell over a period may drastically reduce energy levels.
Besides these, there are many other theories that corroborate the loss of optimal health over an extended period thereby validating the use of vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent or reverse damage to various body systems.
Which nutritional supplements to choose?
Daily Value (DV) estimates the amount of nutrients needed by an average healthy person to avoid showing signs of deficiency, then adds a margin of error. However, DVs have become subject of tremendous inspection in view of current discoveries. Many scientific studies show that our bodies need extra antioxidant vitamins C, E, A, lipoic acid and antioxidant-aiding minerals, such as zinc and selenium, in doses that well exceeded the DV.
Food pyramid graphs indicate the accurate servings of various food groups (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) for good health and energy. Most people try to eat nutritionally-balanced meals that ensure the intake of all vital nutrients naturally. Despite this trend research, studies indicate that getting the daily dose of nutrients from food alone might be insufficient. Depending upon the individual’s age and health issues, extra intake of some nutrients may be essential.
Most doctors recommend a broad range multivitamin and mineral supplement for seniors. The supplements mentioned below might be required by some others and are usually taken on prescription by the dietitian or doctor who knows the health history of the individual. Here are some of the other popularly recommended supplements listed below:
Vitamin B: These are considered most important for successful ageing. They play a crucial role in optimal brain function and cellular age reversal. Vegans and vegetarians tend to have low levels of vitamin B12, a deficiency of which can adversely affect your mental faculties. It also helps keep your red blood cells and nerves healthy. As people grow older, some have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 naturally found in food so vitamin B12 is recommended for those with improper absorption. In addition to B-complex, extra B6 helps the body to produce immune cells (T-cells) and antibodies to fight infections. It helps produce red blood cells as well. Folic acid supplements also may lower chances of heart disease.
Antioxidant vitamins A, C & E: Many scientists believe that antioxidants work best in combination and offer better protection against free radicals. The supplements most recommended include a blend of vitamin A, C, E, selenium, grape seed extract, coenzyme Q10 and lipoic acid.
Vitamin A & beta carotene: These help the immune system by increasing resistance to infection. Beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) offers immune benefits by increasing immune cell numbers and activity.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C boosts immunity by elevating the levels and enhancing the activity of certain immune cells. High doses may cause diarrhoea in some people and many medications such as aspirin, corticosteroids and oral contraceptives may deplete vitamin C levels.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E also boosts immunity. The natural form (d-alpha tocopherol) has greater antioxidant activity and absorption.
Vitamin D: Those with insufficient exposure to sunlight are often recommended to take vitamin D supplements. It is also necessary for calcium absorption.
Calcium: Bone loss can lead to fractures in both older women and men. In a diet that lacks sufficient calcium, supplements may then be necessary. Choose one that provides two-parts calcium for every one-part magnesium. Calcium supplements are available in the form of carbonate, citrate, lactate, chelate and others. However, less expensive is the carbonate form but it may cause constipation and gas especially in people aged 50 years plus with low stomach acid. It may not be absorbed properly and hence, citrates and chelates are a better option.
Magnesium: Magnesium plays an important role in calcium uptake and prevention of bone deterioration and osteoporosis. The enzymes that convert vitamin D into its active form require magnesium. Magnesium citrate and chelate forms are recommended over magnesium oxide, which may cause diarrhoea.
Zinc: Zinc helps in wound healing and boosting immunity. It is often given to individuals experiencing recurrent infections.
Chromium: Chromium helps maintain blood sugar balance especially in diabetics. It works with insulin to move glucose into cells.
Selenium: It acts as an antioxidant and clears up many accumulated toxins. It is also necessary for the body’s growth and protein synthesis. It helps boost immunity in the elderly.
Probiotics: Commonly referred to as a “friendly” bacteria, these aid the immune system by inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria. They also produce substances called “bacteriocins” which function as natural antibiotics. Products vary greatly in quality and stability, and many require refrigeration.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): These (Omega 3 and 6) are important for preventing bone deterioration, dementia and memory loss, loss of vision and for maintaining hormonal balance. They are recommended for those who do not include fish in their diet.
Many people also use herbal supplements that come from plants. A few that you may have heard of are St John’s Wort, gingko biloba, gotu kola, ginseng, echinacea and black cohosh. There is insufficient research on these supplements and it is not confirmed if herbal supplements are both safe and useful.
Most dietary needs are met with a well-balanced diet. Nutrients are best absorbed through our food. It is only when the diet is imbalanced or the health compromised by some illness that one needs to look at external supplementation.
Before taking any supplements, it is best to do some analysis. Ask yourself why you feel the need to take a dietary supplement. Is it because of a TV or magazine ad that promises instant relief from a certain health issue? Are you concerned about getting enough nutrients or is your friend or neighbour recommending one? It is always best to consult your doctor or a dietitian before consuming any supplement. Many supplements interfere with medications and sometimes food. A registered physician should be able to prescribe the dosage amount and time for you to take the supplement.
When it comes to choosing the right supplement, it is best to consider the points below:
- Consult a doctor: Let the doctor decide if you need to have a dietary supplement and the right dosage. Do not do any self-diagnosis.
- Do your research: Make sure any claim made about a dietary supplement is based on scientific proof. There could be side effects and just because something is said to be “natural” does not mean it is either safe or good for you. Discuss with your doctor, pharmacist or a registered dietitian about the various established supplement brands.
- Be a smart consumer: Choose brands that are trustworthy. Discuss with your doctor, pharmacist or a registered dietitian about the various established supplement brands. Do not buy dietary supplements with extra ingredients you might not need.
- Stick to the prescribed dosage: Do not assume that more of something that might be good for you is even better for you.
- Do not mix supplements with other medications: This can create toxicity as both may interact and interfere with the absorption of the other or sometimes create unfavourable side effects. It is best to check with your physician on the possible complications.
The plan that supports healthy longevity includes a non-toxic, nutrient-dense diet that fuels and satisfies one’s daily needs. A diet plan that consists of foods that are easy to digest and eliminate, and that includes some supplements to address age-related degeneration, together with regular exercise, is the way to go.
Mayura Mohta is a biochemist and microbiologist, who founded social enterprise Healthfriend in 2010. The organisation seeks to promote wise eating choices and healthy nutritional habits within the community for sustainable wellness and a better quality of life. It does this through nutrition workshops and seminars that bust common food myths. Profits generated are ploughed back into the local community, through various charities in Singapore and India that support malnourished and underprivileged children.
(** PHOTO CREDIT: Vitamins, n_yfe, stock.xchng; natural supplements 4, tinpalace, stock.xchng)