Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that we need for the body to function well. The debate is whether or not we need to take supplements and this really comes down to personal choice. Both vitamins and supplements become more important for old people and here we give you the information to ensure your parents are getting what they need.
As we get older it’s more difficult to digest, absorb and metabolise nutrient, and some medications may also inhibit the whole process. Supplements may also be needed for those who do not have a diet which contains enough of the vitamins and minerals needed maintain good health. It’s important though to ask the GP if it’s OK to take vitamins and minerals in addition to prescribed medicines.
To achieve the daily level of vitamins and minerals means eating a lot of fruit and vegetables every day, choosing healthy foods as outlined in Elderly Nutrition and preferably eating organic food, which is grown in soil rich in minerals.
Which vitamins and minerals to supplement?
Some people take the view that they want to take supplements even when their diet is healthy, so which vitamins/minerals and other supplements are the most popular?
A good multivitamin/mineral formula gives a spread of all the main vitamins and minerals that are essential for health. It is also a more economical choice – because you only have to buy one product.
Doctors are agreed that the average person in the UK does not have the required levels of Vitamin D, and that the elderly are particularly at risk. This is because the main source of Vitamin D is from exposure to the sun on bare skin. However, Vitamin D tests are not routinely given on the NHS.
Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency because they may not ever spend time in the sun, even in summer. This is particularly the case in homes for the elderly where many of the residents stay indoors all the time.
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, teeth and muscles, and especially for people with Osteoporosis (see Good Old Bones). It is also necessary for keeping the brain healthy, lowering blood pressure, and preventing heart disease and diabetes.
Foods that provide Vitamin D are: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna), red meat and eggs. Some cereals are fortified with Vitamin D, but although there has been plenty of talk about fortifying bread and milk to ensure that vulnerable people get enough Vitamin D, but so far this hasn’t happened.
The simplest way to ensure the required RDA ( recommended daily allowance) is to use a Vitamin D spray in the mouth, available at health food stores. The daily limit for the intake of Vitamin D is 100mcg (micrograms) or 4000 Iu which is the measurement used by many sprays.
Most of us recognise Vitamin C as preventing and easing colds, but it has plenty of other functions. This vitamin is an antioxidant which fights infection and disease as well as keeping skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage healthy, protecting cells, helping wounds to heal and boosting the immune system.
It’s abundant in fruit and vegetables, especially tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and other berries, and green leafy vegetables. Many elderly people don’t eat a lot of fresh produce, so extra Vitamin C is helpful. Fresh fruit and vegetable juices are a great source of Vitamin C (see Elderly Nutrition).
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 60mg a day for those under 64, but for older people it is higher. The good thing about Vitamin C is that it is water soluble so any excessive amounts are excreted through the body in the urine.
Low levels of Vitamin B12 and B6 can increase the risk of stroke and dementia. As absorption of essential nutrients reduces as people age, these vitamins are important for preventing mental illness.
Few people have their vitamin levels measured as it is not a routine test on the NHS, so one solution could be to take a Vitamin B complex and to eat foods that are fortified with B vitamins such as cereals. Foods that are high in B vitamins are eggs, liver, kidney, nuts, sunflower seeds and wholegrains.
Calcium & magnesium
Calcium is required for healthy bones as well as having an important role in blood clotting. It is a natural tranquilliser and may protect against some cancers. For anyone with (or at risk of) osteoporosis calcium is a very important supplement.
Calcium is found in dairy products, broccoli, green leafy vegetables (not spinach), beans, soya, nuts, molasses, bread, and fruit. Magnesium works together with calcium, helps muscle to relax, releases energy from food and builds new cells and proteins. Most vegetables contain magnesium, but organically grown vegetables are better because the soil is richer in minerals than where it has been intensively farmed.
A lot of people have low iron levels which can be identified with a blood test. A lack of iron results in anaemia (not enough red blood cells), which causes excessive fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and problems with swallowing. Iron is needed for the manufacture of red blood cells.
Red meat, grains, pulses, nuts, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit are all good sources of iron, but they are absorbed better when eaten with food rich in Vitamin C. Doctors can prescribe iron supplements, or you can buy liquid iron tonics.
Omega 3s (fish oils and vegetarian alternatives)
Research has shown that fatty acids such as Omega 3s can help to lower the risk of developing dementia in old age. They are also claimed to be good for heart health, can alleviate swollen joints (as in arthritis) and improve mobility.
Recommendations are that the elderly should eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily – as in tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines and herring. To be sure of getting enough to ward off health problems, fish oil supplements can be taken. For people who don’t eat fish, there are vegetarian alternatives such as flaxseed (the same as linseed).
Most people are familiar with the need to have ‘friendly bacteria’ in the gut, and this is particularly so for the elderly whose digestive systems are more vulnerable. A healthy gut or digestive system is important as it directly relates to the health of the immune system.
Medically probiotics are classed as foods as they are present in live yoghurts but they are also supplements that can help to keep the digestive system to function well. A review of research by Cochrane Review claimed that probiotics are safe and can shorten the duration of acute infectious diarrhoea and reduce the number of times needed to go to the toilet.
Anyone who has regular problems with their digestive system could benefit from taking probiotics which are available as capsules. These contain more of the ‘friendly bacteria’ than yoghurts do.
If you want some professional advice you can consult a qualified nutritionist but you have to pay. To find a nutritionist contact:
British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT), http://bant.org.uk/
Institute of Optimum Nutrition (ION), https://www.ion.ac.uk/
British Nutrition Foundation, https://www.nutrition.org.uk
Frances Ive is a health writer and author who has had over 100 articles published in national newspapers and consumer magazines. She is a member of The Guild of Health Writers.