Dietary Supplements for Older Adults
Dietary supplements can be beneficial at any age, but they can also have unwanted side effects, such as unsafe prescription drug interactions. They could also not work at all.
It’s important to understand the supplements you are taking and why you are taking them. Talk with your doctor if you are considering taking a supplement.
On this page:
What is a dietary supplement?
Dietary supplements are substances you might use to add nutrients to your diet or to lower your risk of health problems such as osteoporosis or arthritis. Dietary supplements come in the form of pills, capsules, powders, gel capsules and tablets, extracts, or liquids. They might contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids, herbs or other plants, or enzymes. Sometimes, the ingredients in dietary supplements are added to foods and drinks. A doctor’s prescription is not needed to buy dietary supplements.
Should I take a dietary supplement?
Eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to get the nutrients you need. However, some people may not get enough vitamins and minerals from their daily diet. When that’s the case, their doctors may recommend a dietary supplement to provide missing nutrients.
If you are thinking about using dietary supplements:
- Learn. Find out as much as you can about any dietary supplement you might take. Talk with your doctor, pharmacist, or a registered dietitian. A supplement that seemed to help your neighbor might not work for you. If you are reading fact sheets or checking websites, be aware of the source of the information. Could the writer or group profit from the sale of a particular supplement? Read more about choosing reliable health information websites.
- Remember. Just because something is said to be “natural” doesn’t mean it is safe or good for you. It could have side effects. It might make a medicine your doctor prescribed for you either weaker or stronger. It could also be harmful to you if you have certain medical conditions.
- Tell your doctor. Before deciding to start taking a dietary supplement to treat any health condition, check with your doctor. Do not take a supplement to try to diagnose or treat any health condition without first checking with your doctor. Learn how medications can interact with dietary supplements. For more information, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
- Buy wisely. Choose brands that your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist recommend. Don’t buy dietary supplements with ingredients you don’t need. Don’t assume that more is better — it can actually be harmful to take too many supplements or those with a very high concentration of a nutrient. It is possible to waste money on unneeded supplements.
- Check the science. Make sure any claim about a dietary supplement is based on scientific proof. Look for the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) verified mark. USP verifies the identity, quality, strength, and purity of supplements. Information on some dietary supplements is available on MedlinePlus, but it’s important to note that most supplements listed have limited evidence of any benefit. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Be a savvy consumer. Some advertisements for dietary supplements in magazines, online, or on TV promise that some of these products will make you feel better, keep you from getting sick, or even help you live longer. It’s important to know that often, there is little, if any, science supporting these claims.
Dietary supplements for older adults
People over age 50 may need more of some vitamins and minerals than younger adults do. Your doctor or a dietitian can tell you whether you need to change your diet or take a vitamin or mineral supplement to get enough of these:
- Calcium: Calcium works with vitamin D to keep bones strong at all ages. Bone loss can lead to fractures in both older women and men. Calcium is found in milk and milk products (fat-free or low-fat is best), canned fish with soft bones, dark-green leafy vegetables like kale, and foods with calcium added, such as breakfast cereals.
- Vitamin D: Most people in the United States consume less than recommended amounts of vitamin D. Talk with your doctor about adding vitamin D-fortified milk and milk products, vitamin D-fortified cereals, and fatty fish to your diet, or using a vitamin D supplement.
- Vitamin B6: This vitamin is needed to form red blood cells. It is found in potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin B12: This helps keep your red blood cells and nerves healthy. While older adults need just as much vitamin B12 as other adults, some have trouble absorbing the vitamin naturally found in food. If you have this problem, your doctor may recommend that you eat foods like fortified cereals with this vitamin added, or take a B12 supplement. Strict vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because natural food sources of vitamin B12 are limited to animal foods. Talk with your doctor about whether taking a B12 supplement is right for you.
What are antioxidants?
You might hear about antioxidants in the news. These are natural substances in food that might help protect you from some diseases. Here are some common antioxidants that you should be sure to include in your diet:
- Beta-carotene: Found in fruits and vegetables that are either dark green or dark orange
- Selenium: Found in seafood, liver, meat, and grains
- Vitamin C: Found in citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes, and berries
- Vitamin E: Found in wheat germ, nuts, and sesame seeds; and canola, olive, and peanut oils
Currently, research results suggest that large doses of supplements with antioxidants will not prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease or diabetes. In fact, some studies have shown that taking large doses of some antioxidants could be harmful. Again, it is best to check with your doctor before taking a dietary supplement.
Herbal supplements and older adults
Herbal supplements are dietary supplements that come from plants. These types of supplements are taken by mouth, whether it’s by a capsule, tablet, powder, or liquid.
A few that you may have heard of are ginkgo biloba, ginseng, echinacea, and black cohosh. Researchers are looking at using herbal supplements to prevent or treat some health problems, but it’s too early to know if these are both safe and useful. Previous studies of certain herbal supplements have not shown any benefits.
It’s important to know that just because a supplement is natural, or comes from plants, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.
Are dietary supplements safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) checks prescription medicines, such as antibiotics or blood pressure drugs, to make sure they are safe and do what they promise. The same is true for over-the-counter drugs such as pain and cold medicines. However, the FDA does not have authority over dietary supplements, which do not have to be approved by this agency for safety or efficacy before being sold to the public.
The federal government does not regularly test what is in dietary supplements, and companies are not required to share information about the safety of these products with the FDA before they sell them. So, just because a dietary supplement is on a store shelf, that does not mean it is safe, does what the label says it will, or contains what the label states.
If the FDA receives reports of possible problems with a supplement, it will issue warnings about the product. The FDA may also take supplements that are found to be unsafe off the market.
The Federal Trade Commission investigates reports of ads that might misrepresent what dietary supplements do. A few private groups, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, ConsumerLab.com, and the Natural Products Association, have their own “seals of approval” for dietary supplements. To earn such a seal, products must be made by following good manufacturing procedures, must contain what is listed on the label, and must not have harmful levels of ingredients that don’t belong there, such as lead.
Whether you take dietary supplements or not, it’s still important to follow a healthy lifestyle. Try sticking to a healthy diet, being physically active, keeping your mind active, not smoking, and seeing your doctor regularly.
For more information about dietary supplements
Federal Trade Commission
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
NIH National Library of Medicine
United States Pharmacopeia (USP)
This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.
Content reviewed: April 23, 2021