Aging and vitamin needs

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2005

In a reversal of the policy of less than a generation ago, medical authorities now acknowledge that everyone needs to take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement. That's quite a change from what your family physician probably told you: "If you eat a normal diet you don't need vitamins." In a pair of articles that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 the authors reached the conclusion that those who live a Western lifestyle cannot obtain all the nutrients that they need from their diet.

Some experts in the field of nutrition have argued that we have not had access to a normal diet since the Agricultural Revolution began about 12,000 years ago. Prior to that, during the Old Stone Age, it was unlikely that anyone would suffer from a vitamin or mineral deficiency. That only occurred when we moved from a hunter-gatherer existence with its wide range of foodstuffs to an agrarian society that depended, as it does now, on a handful of crops that are not as well suited to our nutritional requirements.

The new recommendations are particularly important for our elderly population. As we pile on the years we develop vitamin and mineral shortfalls due to the body's changing needs and psychosocial factors that influence dietary habits. Recent surveys among persons over the age of 65 reveal that there is a widespread deficiency of vitamins A and E and the minerals calcium and zinc. More than half of hospitalized patients above that age have levels of vitamin D that are inadequate for strong bones and for maintaining a healthy immune system

It's virtually impossible for us to attain optimum nutrition with our diet of processed food and fast food, which make up most of our daily intake. Soil depletion, nutrient losses in storage and processing and the general tendency to limit fresh fruits and vegetables leave us with a nutritional void. Older individuals face all these barriers and more. As we age we lose some of our sense of taste and smell and so our appetite diminishes. A small but significant percentage of the elderly become less able to absorb some nutrients, especially vitamin B12. Older persons tend to stay indoors more and shield themselves from sunlight when they do venture outside. In their fear of developing skin cancer they thwart an important mechanism by which the body forms vitamin D. Persons over the age of 60 often take several medications each day and some of these, such as antacids and anticonvulsants, inhibit the absorption or the action of vitamins. Older persons who live alone take little interest in preparing quality meals. The reasons include illness, depression, debility and the side effects of medications.

Is there a downside to taking the recommended dosage of vitamins and minerals on a daily basis? Absolutely not. The key word is recommended. Large doses of vitamin A might possibly increase the risk of bone fractures but we can avoid it by taking this vitamin in the form of beta carotene. It's theoretically possible to take enough vitamin E to interfere with blood clotting, especially in someone taking anticoagulants. However, few multivitamin preparations have more than the Recommended Daily Intake of vitamin E.

Your specific needs depend on your lifestyle, but a quality multivitamin/multimineral product is good insurance against dietary inadequacy, especially in your later years.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.