Vitamins and the Elderly

February 27, 2015

Which vitamins… how many IUs (international units)… or none at all? These are the questions that need to be addressed when you are caring for an elder. Easy decisions--not at all! There are many dissenting opinions as to what a senior needs to be healthy. As well, as people age, there are many more factors that need to be considered.

A prominent opinion is that the majority of older adults need only to improve their diet to get needed nutrients. "A lot of money is wasted in providing unnecessary supplements to millions of people who don't need them," says Donald B. McCormick, PhD, an Emory professor emeritus of biochemistry. He continues, "A supplement does not cure the aging process, and in some cases, supplements may do harm." 

But this is not the nutrition solution in all situations as some older adults may have obstacles to eating. Problems with reduced appetite, reduced sense of taste, illness digestion problems and mechanical problems such as chewing can derail even the best meal planning. Making the vitamin decisions even more complicated is the fact that as we get older, the body becomes less efficient at absorbing some important nutrients.

So for the caregiver there are two parts to understanding what is best for your elder.

  1. What are the key nutrients needed to give elders optimum health?
  2. How will these nutrients be given to the elder: by attention to appropriate food choices or by supplement?

Older-Adult Nutrient Needs

Vitamin B12

  • B12 is important for creating red blood cells and DNA, and for maintaining healthy nerve function. Elders can’t absorb B12 from food as well as younger people.
  • Foods sources rich in B12 include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products.


  • Calcium is most important for building and maintaining strong bones. Calcium is so essential that if you don’t get enough it has been shown to increase the risk of brittle bones and fractures.
  • Food sources include three servings a day of low-fat milk and other dairy products. Other good dietary sources of calcium include kale and broccoli, as well as juices fortified with calcium. Calcium-rich foods are by far that best choice, not supplements.

Folic Acid (Folate)

  • This is an essential B vitamin and a deficiency of this vitamin is known for contributing to anemia.
  • Food sources include breakfast cereals fortified with folate, fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin D

  • Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, maintain bone density, and prevent osteoporosis. Vitamin D may also protect against cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune diseases. In older people, vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to increased risk of falling.
  • Many foods are fortified with vitamin D, including cereals, milk, some yogurts, and juices. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D. However, vitamin D is found in salmon, tuna, and eggs. Vitamin D is mainly produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight. Many experts think older people need to take vitamin D supplements, since the skin becomes less efficient at producing the vitamin from sunlight as we age.


  • Fibre helps promote healthy digestion by moving foods through the digestive tract. Foods with fibre have many other health benefits, including protecting against heart disease.
  • Foods rich in fibre include whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables.  


  • Getting adequate potassium in your diet will help keep bones strong. This essential mineral is important for cell function and has also been shown to help reduce high blood pressure and the risk of kidney stones.
  • Excellent food sources for potassium are fruits and vegetables. Banana, prunes, plums, and potatoes with their skin are particularly rich in potassium. Too much potassium can be very dangerous for your health so consult a doctor before taking potassium supplements.


  • Water is crucial for good health. The sense of thirst declines with age as well, some medications may cause dehydration. Water is especially important if you are eating adequate fibre since it absorbs water.
  • It is recommended that elders drink 3 to 5 large glasses of water each day. The colour of urine, if enough water is being consumed, should be pale yellow. Some people may need to have their amount of fluids restricted due to medical reasons such as kidney or liver disease. Taking in too much fluid can be unsafe, too.


  • Magnesium does many jobs in your body, such as helping to maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeping a steady heart rhythm, supporting a healthy immune system, and strengthening bones.
  • Good dietary sources include green vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.

Interesting Facts

  • With age, the number of calories you need begins to decline.
  • Vitamin C needs do not seem to change with age as long as the older adult does not smoke cigarettes. 
  • Older adults often take in less chromium but there is not evidence that there are any health consequences.
  • Supplements for cancer patients are not recommended.
  • Boosting nutrients above what can be taken from a well-balanced diet won't necessarily lead to better health.
  • At very high levels, some vitamins and minerals can be toxic.
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is a good source of information.

Always try to provide good nutrition for your elder with food first and never include supplements in your elder's diet without first consulting a doctor. Remember, with dietary supplements for the elderly, more is not always better.

Caregiver Payroll and Tax Service powered by Heartpayroll