Healing Naturally - Vitamins for the Elderly

Author: Amanda Woodward

| Published on: December,16 | Viewed: 2589 times

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A Primer on Vitamins

We all need vitamins and minerals for our bodies to function at their best.  There are 14 known vitamins and 15 minerals.  That’s a lot to keep track of.  The good news is that most of us get all of the vitamins and minerals we need through our food. (See the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 for more about eating a healthy, balanced diet).  For those who don’t get enough through diet, taking a dietary supplement can help, but there can also be risks.  As we age, the amount of nutrients we need changes.  We also take more medications as we get older and some vitamins and medications can have negative interactions or interfere with one another.

The most important thing, of course, is to talk to your doctor and pharmacist if you’re concerned about getting enough nutrients and potential interactions with medications you may be taking.

But, it’s also good to have some basic knowledge about what the different nutrients do, where we get them, and the problems they may pose.  Some vitamin basics are explained below.  The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements is a great resource for more details.

Vitamin A

What does it do?

Vitamin A is important for vision, the immune system, and reproduction. It also helps many organs work properly.

Where is it?

There are two types of vitamin A.  Preformed vitamin A is found in meat, poultry, some fish such as salmon, and dairy products.  Dairy is one of the major sources of this type of vitamin A in the United States.  The second type is provitamin A, the most common type of which is beta-carotene.  It is in fruits such as cantaloupe, apricots, and mangoes; green leafy vegetables; and other green, orange, and yellow vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and squash. Vitamin A is also found in fortified breakfast cereals.

What might it interact with?

Vitamin A supplements can interact with a weight-loss drug called Orlistat.  There are also synthetic forms of vitamin A used in some prescription medicines, so supplements should not be taken at the same time as these medications.

Vitamin B12

What does it do?

Vitamin B12 helps keeps our nerves and blood cells healthy and it helps make DNA.  It also helps prevent a type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia that makes people tired and weak.

Where is it?

The best sources for vitamin B12 are beef liver and clams.  Fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and other dairy products also contain B12 and some breakfast cereals, nutritional yeasts and other products have been fortified. B12 is not in plant-based foods.

Why might I need a supplement?

People over 50 have trouble absorbing B12 from food because they don’t have enough hydrochloric acid in their stomach.  B12 from fortified foods and dietary supplements is easier to absorb.

What might it interact with?

Some antibiotics and medicines to treat acid reflux, peptic ulcer disease, and diabetes may interfere with the body’s ability to absorb B12.

Vitamin B6

What does it do?

Vitamin B6 is involved in maintaining metabolism, immune function, and brain development during pregnancy and infancy.

Where is it?

B6 is found naturally in poultry, fish, and organ meats.  Potatoes and other starchy vegetables as well as fruits (other than citrus) are some of the major sources of vitamin B6 in the United States.

Why might I need a supplement?

Some people have trouble getting enough B6 from food including people whose kidneys are not working properly; people with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac or Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease; or people with alcohol dependence.

What might it interact with?

Vitamin B6 can interact with an antibiotic used to treat tuberculosis called cycloserine.  Some epilepsy drugs can decrease vitamin B6 and reduce the drugs’ ability to control seizures.  Theophylline, used for asthma, can reduce vitamin B6 levels.

Vitamin C

What does it do?

Vitamin C is an antioxidant.  Antioxidants help protect cells from damage from compounds called free radicals that form when our bodies convert food into energy or from exposure to pollution and other harmful things in the environment. Vitamin C is also needed for the body to produce collagen (a protein that helps wounds heal) and it improves our ability to absorb iron from plant-based foods.  

It also boosts the immune system.  Unfortunately, vitamin C doesn’t reduce the risk of getting a cold, nor does it help if you take it after you get cold symptoms.  There is some evidence, however, that people who take vitamin C supplements regularly may have slightly shorter colds or milder symptoms than those who don’t.

Where is it?

Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C, particularly citrus fruits and their juice, red and green peppers, and kiwifruit.  Vitamin C is also in broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe, baked potatoes, and tomatoes. Some foods and beverages are fortified with vitamin C.  Fresh, uncooked produce has the highest vitamin C content.

Why might I need a supplement?

If you smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke, you may need even more vitamin C.  Others who may need more vitamin C include infants who are fed evaporated or boiled cow’s milk, people who eat a very limited variety of food, and people with certain medical conditions that limit their ability to properly absorb nutrients.  Taking too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps.

What might it interact with?

Vitamin C dietary supplements might make some cancer treatments less effective.

Vitamin D

What does it do?

Vitamin D maintains strong bones by helping the body absorb calcium, but it’s also important for overall health. Muscles, nerves, and the immune system all need vitamin D.  In combination with calcium, vitamin D helps protect older adults from osteoporosis.

Where is it?

This is one of the few vitamins that is not found in many foods naturally.  The best food sources are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks have small amounts, as do mushrooms.   Most of the vitamin D in our diets come from fortified foods such as milk, breakfast cereals and some brands of orange juice, yogurt, margarine, and soy beverages.

We also get some vitamin D when our skin is directly exposed to the sun, but the risks of long sun exposure outweigh the benefits.

Why might I need a supplement?

Older adults may not get enough vitamin D because their skin doesn’t make vitamin D from sunlight as efficiently as when they were young, and their kidneys are less able to convert vitamin D to its active form.  People with darker skin produce less vitamin D from the sun and people with Crohn’s or celiac disease can’t absorb vitamin D as well.

What might it interact with?

Prednisone and other corticosteroid medicines used to reduce inflammation may impair the body’s ability to handle vitamin D. This leads to lower calcium absorption and loss of bone over time.  Some weight loss and cholesterol-lowering drugs can reduce the absorption of vitamin D.  Phenobarbital and phenytoin, used to prevent and control seizures, increase the breakdown of vitamin D and reduce calcium absorption.

Vitamin E

What does it do?

Vitamin E is an antioxidant like vitamin C.  It also boosts the immune system, helps widen blood vessels, and keeps blood from clotting within them.  Our cells use vitamin E for lots of important jobs.

Where is it?

Vitamin E is in vegetable oils like wheat germ, sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean.  Almonds are an especially good source, as are other nuts such as peanuts and hazelnuts and seeds like sunflower seeds.  You can also get vitamin E from green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, and it has been added to some breakfast cereals, fruit juices, margarines, and other foods.

Why might I need a supplement?

Most of us get less than the recommended amounts of vitamin E.  Despite this, vitamin E deficiency is rare in healthy people.  Deficiencies are more likely to occur in people with diseases like Crohn’s disease or cystic fibrosis that inhibit the ability to properly digest or absorb fat.

What might it interact with?

Vitamin E can increase the risk of bleeding in people taking an anticoagulant or antiplatelet such as warfarin.  These are drugs that are commonly prescribed to people who are at risk of or have experienced a stroke.

Vitamin K

What does it do?

Vitamin K is what makes our blood clot.

Where is it?

Vitamin K is in green, leafy vegetables as well as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.  It is also found in fish, liver, meat, eggs, and cereals. It is made by the bacteria in the lower intestinal tract.

Why might I need a supplement?

Most people don’t need a supplement for vitamin K, but sometimes the body will not absorb it properly from the intestinal tract.  You may also need a supplement after long-term treatment with antibiotics.

What might it interact with?

Like vitamin E, vitamin K can interact with blood thinning drugs.


And now you know your vitamin ABCs.  This article was written by writers at Seniorly, the marketplace for senior living. Seniorly has thousands of independent living, assisted living, memory care, and board and care homes with reviews, pricing, photos, and much more. Experience what a good senior living search should be by searching on Seniorly today.


About Amanda Woodward

Amanda Toler Woodward, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. She does research on services and supports for older adults including racial and ethnic disparities in access to services and international comparisons of service systems. She writes about a wide range of topics related to aging research, social work, academia, and whatever else catches her fancy at www.amandatolerwoodward.com


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