As you age, increase these key nutrients

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published June 5, 2019

Key Takeaways

Healthy eating is important for everyone, but even more so for older adults. Dietary intake and nutrient absorption decline in older adults, which has been linked to reduced physical and mental function, and increased risk of disability. These problems, in turn, may lead to less social interaction, depression, and higher morbidity and mortality.

To fend off these effects, older folks need just as much, if not more, of some nutrients—without adding extra calories. Eating healthier can provide most of these nutrients, and common dietary supplements may provide the rest.

Here’s just a few of the important nutrients that older folks should consider increasing in their diet.


Although taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements doesn’t seem to protect against Alzheimer’s disease or slow cognitive decline in older adults, omega-3s found in fish and other foods may offer some benefit for adults with rheumatoid arthritis. While omega-3s have shown mixed results in patients with cardiovascular disease (CVD), eating seafood high in omega-3s has been linked to healthier and increased longevity in older adults.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps build and maintain strong bones and muscles, and also helps with electrolyte reabsorption, immune system regulation, and other functions. Researchers have found that vitamin D may also protect against certain chronic diseases, including cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune diseases.

But in older adults, vitamin D deficiency is common. (Notably, vitamin D deficiency is becoming an increasing problem with younger generations, too.) Lack of vitamin D in the older population can lead to bone loss, impaired muscle function, increased risk of falls and fractures, and other problems—including rickets. Vitamin D is mainly produced by the skin upon exposure to sunlight, but supplements can help people with a deficiency. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin D is 600 IU for adults aged 51-70 years and 800 IU for adults older than age 70.


Most of us get enough calcium from our diets to build and maintain strong bones. Indeed, researchers have shown that most older adults don’t get any extra benefit from taking calcium supplements to prevent bone fractures. But then again, some people don’t get enough calcium. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not postmenopausal older women who have inadequate calcium intake—they seem to get enough calcium through diet and supplements. Americans who don’t get enough calcium include girls aged 4 years and older (particularly adolescent girls) and boys aged 9 to 18 years, as well as men older than 51 years, according to an article by an Institute of Medicine committee.

The RDA of calcium is 1,300 mg for adolescents and teenagers (aged 9-18 years), 1,000 mg for adults (women aged 19-50 years, men aged 19-70 years), and 1,200 mg for older adults (women aged 51 and older, men aged 71 and older).


Potassium is an electrolyte required for the normal functioning of cells, nerves, and muscles. Potassium has also been linked to reducing the risk of stroke and other CVDs. Specifically, higher intakes of potassium have been associated with a significantly reduced risk of stroke as well as nonsignificant reductions in the risk of other CVDs. Potassium’s beneficial effects may be due to its antihypertensive effects. However, even when researchers accounted for blood pressure, higher potassium intake still produced a significantly lower risk of stroke.

As of 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) has strongly recommended that adults increase their dietary intake of potassium in order to reduce blood pressure levels and risks for CVD, stroke, and coronary heart disease. The WHO suggests that adults get at least 3,510 mg of potassium per day.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 deficiency is relatively common, especially among older adults. An estimated 20% of adults older than age 50 may have borderline vitamin B12 deficiency, and 3.2% have significantly low B12 levels. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency—such as difficulty walking, sensations or numbness in hands or feet, anemia, swollen tongue, cognitive difficulties, weakness, fatigue—can be easily overlooked or confused with other conditions in older adults, so a blood test is needed to confirm the problem. Adults older than age 50 may not be able to absorb enough of the vitamin through foods, so a standard daily multivitamin supplement is recommended.


Magnesium is involved in more than 300 biochemical processes in the body, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Magnesium is largely obtained through food; however, absorption of magnesium decreases with age. In addition, medications that many older people take, including diuretics and proton pump inhibitors, may also lower magnesium levels. Good sources of magnesium-rich foods include nuts, spinach, beans, whole grains, as well as some breakfast cereals and other fortified foods.

Fiber, protein, and exercise

In addition to specific nutrients, older adults also need to increase their daily protein and fiber intake, and exercise.

  • Protein: Adults typically lose muscle mass as they get older. Eating more protein can reduce older adults’ loss of muscle mass and strength.
  • Fiber: Many older adults have problems with constipation. Increased daily intake of fiber can keep things moving along at a regular pace.
  • Exercise:Physical activity of any kind is good for older adults, not only for cardiovascular health and improved mood, but also to help prevent bones and muscles from deteriorating.
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