University of Massachusetts Amherst

It's MORE Than A Meal


Special Nutrition Needs of Older Adults

dietary supplements

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

Ideally, people should be able to meet their nutrient needs from food sources alone. However, older adults may find it challenging to obtain enough vitamins and minerals from their diets, especially during illness and other times of low food intake.

A daily multivitamin-mineral supplement can be one way to help older adults meet their nutrient needs. However, they should first consult a physician to be sure that supplements are appropriate for them. The decision to use supplements should be based on their unique needs and dietary intake. It should not be a substitute for proper eating habits or seeking appropriate medical care.

Deceptive advertising and the large variety of supplements on the market may lead older adults to buy supplements that are unnecessary or in potentially harmful doses. Taking high amounts of some nutrients (such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc) can lead to toxic levels in their bodies. Low-dose supplements are less likely to have adverse side effects.

Herbal Supplements

Herbal supplement use has grown dramatically in recent years. Examples are gingko biloba, ginseng, St. John’s wort, and Echinacea. The health claims for these supplements may make them particularly appealing to older adults. However, the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Some studies have shown potential benefits, while others have shown no demonstrable results. Currently, large-scale studies are underway to further test their effectiveness. Until the results are in, it may be too soon to justify any recommendations.

As with medicines, herbal supplements can have potentially harmful side effects. Some can also interact with certain drugs or nutrients. Therefore, older adults should always discuss any current or planned supplement use with their health care providers.

Supplement Health Claim Possible Harmful Effects
Ginkgo Biloba
  • Enhanced memory
  • Improved circulation
  • Antioxidant function
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Headaches, allergic skin reactions
  • Interactions with anticonvulsants
  • Bleeding if combined with certain medications
  • Enhanced memory
  • Increased energy
  • Interactions with medications
    (Coumadin, Digoxin, MAO inhibitors)
St. John’s wort 
  • Enhanced mood
  • Reduced depression
  • Improved sleep
  • Interactions with medications
    (Coumadin, Mevacor, cancer drugs, anticonvulsants, immunosuppressants)
  • Sensitivity to sunlight
  • Enhanced immunity
  • Cold & flu protection
  • Not for use in autoimmune or systemic diseases (lupus, scleroderma, HIV, multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis)
Source: Nutrition and Aging – Herbal Supplements. Facts for Professionals. Pennsylvania State University Nutrition and Extension Partnership Project, 2001

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