Choosing Vitamins and Supplements
What's Right for You?
Patients often have questions about vitamins and supplements. Navigating the supplement shelves in the health store, grocery store or drug store can be confusing and expensive. How do you know what you really need and what’s right for you? Here’s the advice we typically give to our senior patients.
- Calcium and vitamin D combo. Calcium is critical as we age--55% of people over age 55 (including men) experience bone thinning/loss. Supplemental calcium can greatly reduce the risk of bone loss and resulting fractures, especially when coupled with vitamin D (which helps your body absorb calcium). What’s more, vitamin D can boost your immune system and cardiovascular health. I recommend a combination of 1,200 mg/day of calcium along with 400 IU/day of vitamin D (or 700 IU/day for those over age 70). While it’s true that you can get vitamin D from the sun, it’s difficult at our altitude and latitude during winter months. You’d have to stay in the sun so long that the potential for skin damage and skin cancer become prohibitive.
- Vitamin B-12. We also experience some decrease in ability to absorb vitamin B-12 as we get older. I recommend a daily dosage of 2.4 mcg of B-12 to support the brain and spinal cord function and boost cognition.
- Fish oil contains important omega-3 fatty acids that contribute to brain function and cardiovascular health; they can also reduce inflammation and lessen symptoms of arthritis. I suggest 1,000 – 2,000 IU/day.
- Folic acid, or folate, is a form of vitamin B that helps balance homocysteine levels (high levels can be associated with risk of heart disease and stroke). 400 mcg of folic acid per day is right for most people.
- Antioxidants. People are big believers in vitamins E and C, both of which are touted as powerful antioxidants. The theory is that, as we age, oxidated stress deteriorates our bones and joints and antioxidants, such as vitamins E and C, can counteract the process. While this all seems to makes sense, it has not actually been proven. In fact, we’ve seen that too much vitamin E can actually increase the risk of stroke and heart problems in certain circumstances.
As a general rule, more is not necessarily better--high does of any supplement can be dangerous. To be safe, always check with your primary care provider before taking vitamins or supplements.
Of course, eating a good, healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats is ideal. We encourage patients to shop the perimeter of the grocery store for fresh foods first. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it can be difficult for some seniors to get the nutrition they need through their diets. Sometimes it is necessary to get additional nutrients in pill form.
Use your common sense when choosing vitamins and supplements! Try a new supplement at a low dose for a month, and then decide whether it’s helping you or not. Every body is different, and not all vitamins are right for everyone.