Dietary Supplements for Older Adults: Separating Fact from Fiction

Dietary Supplements for Older Adults

The bodily changes associated with aging can affect older people’s  nutrient intake and absorption, making obtaining essential vitamins and minerals from food alone more challenging. As a result, many older adults turn to dietary supplements to help meet their nutritional needs. 

However, with so many supplements available, knowing which ones are safe and effective can be difficult. In this context, understanding the benefits, risks, and limitations of supplements can be vital to ensuring that older adults can make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

What Are Dietary Supplements?

Dietary supplements are products that can be taken to increase the amount of nutrients in your diet or to reduce the likelihood of health issues such as arthritis or osteoporosis. 

These supplements can be found in various forms, including pills, capsules, powders, gel capsules, tablets, extracts, or liquids, and may contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids, herbs, plants, or enzymes. 

In some cases, these supplements can also be added to food and beverages. Obtaining a doctor’s prescription to purchase dietary supplements is unnecessary.

The Importance of Dietary Supplements For Older Adults: Is It Necessary?

Dietary supplements can be important for older adults as they may help fill any nutrient gaps in their diet. 

As people age, their bodies may have difficulty absorbing certain nutrients from food, or they may not consume enough of certain foods. Dietary supplements, such as multivitamins, can provide a convenient way to ensure older adults meet their daily nutrient requirements.

Certain high-risk groups may benefit from taking supplements. For example, individuals diagnosed with osteoporosis may require additional vitamin D and calcium beyond what they obtain from their regular diet. Supplements can also aid individuals with Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, making it challenging to absorb specific nutrients. 

Additionally, those who suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency typically need a supplement. Studies have shown that a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, zinc, and copper may slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in older adults. 

According to Dr. JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, individuals who are lactose intolerant and do not consume dairy products and thus do not receive enough vitamin D and calcium may benefit from taking supplements.

It’s important to note however that dietary supplements should not be a replacement for a healthy diet. Older adults should still aim to consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and limit processed and high-fat foods. 

Also, it is still important to be aware of the possible health risk associated with supplements, such as the ones below from the Harvard Health website,

  • In smokers, consuming excessive amounts of beta carotene has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.
  • Consuming additional calcium and vitamin D may raise the risk of kidney stones.
  • Consuming high doses of vitamin E has been linked to hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by bleeding in the brain.
  • Vitamin K can interfere with the blood-thinning effects of anticoagulants.
  • Long-term use of high doses of vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage that may impair body movements; however, the symptoms usually resolve after discontinuing the supplements.

It’s also important to talk to a healthcare provider before starting any new supplements, as some may interact with medications or have adverse effects in certain individuals.

Debunking Myths About Dietary Supplements

1. More Is Better

The belief that “more is always better” does not hold true for vitamins, as excessive intake can actually be harmful. 

According to the American Cancer Society, despite the availability of vitamin and mineral supplements without a prescription, taking large doses can disrupt the body’s finely tuned systems. 

For instance, high levels of vitamin C can hinder the absorption of copper, while excess phosphorus can impede the absorption of calcium. 

Moreover, large doses of vitamins A, D, and K cannot be excreted by the body and can reach toxic levels when taken excessively. Consuming too much vitamin C or calcium can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort, while overconsumption of vitamin D can lead to hypercalcemia, which weakens bones and can cause damage to the heart and kidneys.

2. “Natural” Labels Means Safer

The assumption that supplements labeled as “natural” are inherently safe is unfortunately inaccurate. While some natural compounds from plants do have medicinal properties, the term “natural” alone does not guarantee safety or efficacy. 

To illustrate this point, even deadly compounds such as cyanide can be considered “natural” as they are produced by certain plants. It is important to note that different parts of a plant can have varying effects on the body – for example, dandelion roots act as a laxative while dandelion leaves function as a diuretic. 

Furthermore, the concentration of the plant compound in the final product can vary greatly and may have significant implications for safety and effectiveness.

3. Taking Supplements With Normal Medicines Is Alright

There is a common misconception that supplements can be taken in conjunction with prescribed medications without any risk of interaction. However, because supplements do not require a prescription and often tout their “natural” ingredients, many people assume that they are safe to use with medication.

In reality, supplements may contain active ingredients that can interfere with the effects of other drugs, either enhancing or reducing their effectiveness. 

A 2012 review found over 1,400 different interactions between herbal and dietary supplements and prescription drugs, with supplements containing magnesium, St. John’s wort, iron, calcium, and ginkgo having the highest number of interactions.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the majority of people who use supplements do not consult with their doctors about their usage, which can lead to further potential problems.

4. Vitamin And Mineral Supplements Is Good For The Heart

While many believe that taking vitamin and mineral supplements can protect heart health, a 2018 review and meta-analysis found no significant benefit for popular supplements such as multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C in preventing cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, or all-cause mortality. 

However, the study did find that folic acid alone and B vitamins with folic acid, B6, and B12 had small effects in reducing stroke risk. 

Another 2019 meta-analysis linked folic acid supplementation to reduced stroke risk in people with cardiovascular risk, and a separate study indicated a lower risk of stroke and overall cardiovascular disease with folic acid supplementation.

5. Vitamin C Can Help With Colds

The notion that vitamin C can prevent colds is not entirely accurate. While there is some truth to this idea, the evidence supporting it is not strong. 

A Cochrane review conducted in 2013 aimed to investigate whether vitamin C could reduce the incidence, duration, or severity of colds. 

The study found that regular vitamin C supplementation did not prevent the common cold among the general population. 

However, it did reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. The review also suggested that vitamin C might be useful for people engaging in brief periods of intense physical exercise, such as marathon runners.

6. Vitamin D Keeps The Cancer At Bay

Many studies have been conducted to determine whether vitamin D can help prevent or treat cancer, but there is no consensus on whether it has an anticancer effect. 

A 2018 randomized, placebo-controlled study of over 25,000 participants found that vitamin D supplements did not lower the incidence of invasive cancer or cardiovascular events. 

However, some studies have found a link between low vitamin D levels and a higher risk of colorectal cancer, while others found no significant link. 

A 2019 meta-analysis concluded that vitamin D did not reduce the incidence of cancer but reduced cancer mortality, and a clinical trial in 2020 found that vitamin D supplementation was not linked to decreased cancer incidence but was associated with a reduced incidence of advanced cancer.

7. Probiotics And Prebiotics Is An All-In-One Cure

In recent years, many products that claim to improve gut health and other health issues have been introduced, particularly probiotics and prebiotics. 

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain microorganisms, and prebiotics are foods or supplements that contain compounds that promote gut bacteria. 

Although gut bacteria are essential for good health, the relationship between the microbiome and health is incredibly complex and not yet fully understood.

Studies have shown that probiotics may help with specific conditions, such as reducing diarrhea caused by some antibiotics and alleviating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. 

However, outside of these conditions, there is little evidence to support the use of probiotics or prebiotics for general health benefits. Currently, marketing drives the sale of these products, using vague terms such as “gut health” and “digestive health.”

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) explains that it is still unclear which probiotics are helpful and which are not, how much to take, and who would be most likely to benefit. 

Additionally, probiotics are not regulated as strictly as medications, raising concerns about their safety and effectiveness. Overall, while probiotics and prebiotics show promise, more research is necessary to determine their true potential.

8. Antioxidants Prolongs Life

The claim that antioxidants can extend life is based on the fact that they prevent oxidation, which can damage cells and their components. Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and carotenoids, which can be found in fruits and vegetables. 

However, it is not clear whether the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are due to antioxidants alone, as they contain many other important nutrients. 

Large studies have looked at whether antioxidant supplements can help prevent chronic diseases but found no significant evidence to support this claim. 

In fact, a review of 78 randomized clinical trials found that participants who took antioxidant supplements were slightly more likely to die than those who did not. 

Therefore, the current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population or in patients with various diseases.

Supplements For Older adults: Should You Take It or Leave It?

Consuming a diverse range of nutritious foods is the optimal approach to obtain the necessary nutrients. Nonetheless, some older adults may not receive sufficient vitamins and minerals from their regular diet. In such cases, their healthcare provider may suggest taking a dietary supplement to compensate for the lacking nutrients.

If you are thinking about using dietary supplements, here are some tips from the National Institute on Aging;

  • Do Your Research. Gathering comprehensive information about any dietary supplement you plan to consume is important. Consult with your physician, pharmacist, or a certified dietitian. Remember that a supplement that may have benefitted someone you know may not work for you. When reviewing fact sheets or browsing websites, be mindful of the source of the information. Is the writer or organization involved in the sale of a particular supplement? Take some time to read further on selecting trustworthy websites for health information.
  • Keep In Mind. Merely because a substance is labeled as “natural” does not guarantee that it is harmless or beneficial for you. Such products may have adverse effects, such as interfering with a medication prescribed by your doctor or weakening or strengthening its effects. Moreover, they may be detrimental to your health if you have specific medical conditions.
  • Consult With Your Doctor. Before initiating the use of a dietary supplement for treating any health condition, it is crucial to consult with your physician. It is advised not to consume supplements for diagnosing or treating any health condition without seeking medical advice first. It is important to be aware of how medications can interact with dietary supplements. For additional details, one can refer to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
  • Buy Wisely. When purchasing dietary supplements, opt for brands recommended by your healthcare provider or pharmacist. Avoid buying supplements that contain unnecessary ingredients. It is not advisable to assume that consuming more supplements will yield better results; excessive supplements or those with high concentrations of certain nutrients can be detrimental to your health. It is important to note that spending money on supplements that are not necessary can also be a waste of resources.
  • Check For Facts. It is crucial to ensure that any assertion regarding a dietary supplement is supported by scientific evidence. One should look for the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) verified label to verify the supplements’ identity, quality, strength, and purity. Although MedlinePlus provides information about some dietary supplements, it is essential to recognize that most listed supplements have insufficient evidence of their benefits. It is likely untrue if a claim seems too good to be valid.
  • Be A Well-informed Consumer. Several advertisements for dietary supplements, whether in magazines, online or on TV, may pledge that certain products can enhance your well-being, prevent illnesses, or extend your life. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to recognize that many of these claims lack sufficient scientific backing.

Dietary Supplements For Older Adults

As individuals age past 50 years, they may require more vitamins and minerals than younger adults. A physician or dietitian can assist in determining if modifications to the diet or a vitamin/mineral supplement are necessary to obtain sufficient amounts of the following nutrients:

Calcium: Together with vitamin D, calcium helps to maintain strong bones at every age. Reduced bone density increases the risk of fractures in older men and women. Calcium can be found in dairy products (preferably low-fat or fat-free), canned fish with soft bones, dark-green leafy vegetables like kale, and calcium-fortified foods like breakfast cereals.

Vitamin D: A majority of people in the US consume less than the recommended amounts of vitamin D. Speak to a doctor about incorporating vitamin D-fortified milk and milk products, vitamin D-fortified cereals, and fatty fish into the diet, or incorporating a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin B6: This vitamin is necessary for red blood cell formation and can be found in potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and fortified cereals.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is required for the maintenance of healthy nerves and red blood cells. Although older adults require the same amount of vitamin B12 as younger adults, some may experience difficulty in naturally absorbing the vitamin from food. If this occurs, a doctor may recommend consuming foods fortified with this vitamin, such as cereals, or taking a B12 supplement. Strict vegans and vegetarians are at a greater risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because natural food sources of vitamin B12 are limited to animal foods. It is important to discuss with a doctor if taking a B12 supplement is necessary.

Read Also: The Secret to Aging Gracefully: The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Quick Tips In Choosing Quality Dietary Supplements

When considering whether to take supplements, there are various factors to keep in mind. 

Certain ingredients can negatively affect individuals with specific health conditions or when taken with certain medications. 

It is crucial to consult a trustworthy healthcare professional before introducing supplements into your routine and to adhere to product usage guidelines. 

Furthermore, it’s important to note that not all supplements are made equal, hence purchasing only from reputable brands with high-quality ingredients is advised. 

Checking the label thoroughly and avoiding products with excessive fillers, additives, or artificial ingredients is also recommended. 

It’s best to choose products tested for safety and quality, preferably by third-party organizations like USP or NSF International, and to look for their seal on the product label.


Supplements can be a useful addition to the diets of older adults, provided that they are used properly and in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. While it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen, older adults can benefit from certain supplements that support bone, joint, heart, and brain health. 

When choosing supplements, it’s crucial to opt for products from reputable brands that use high-quality ingredients and are tested for safety and efficacy by independent third-party organizations. With the right approach, older adults can use supplements as part of a comprehensive strategy for maintaining their health and wellness.

To learn more about building a healthier diet for you or your older loved one, you may also check out our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life