Everyone needs adequate vitamin and mineral intake—but as we age, we may need different levels of vitamins and minerals to maintain and support healthy functioning. Eating a variety of colorful foods (a “rainbow diet”) can help provide aging adults with the full spectrum of necessary vitamins and minerals.
Let’s look at the different types of vitamins and minerals we need.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A is essential in the role of vision, reproduction, growth, and the function of a healthy immune system. We need less vitamin A as we age, in part because this vitamin is more readily stored in older adults than younger adults. Sources include carrots, squash, greens, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, milk, eggs, liver, and fish.
- Vitamin B6: This is important in neurotransmitter synthesis, red blood cell formation and function, niacin formation from the amino acid tryptophan, steroid hormone function, and nucleic acid synthesis. Recommendations for adults over age 50 are higher than those for younger adults, because the aging process alters the vitamin’s metabolism. Sources include meat, potatoes, bananas, beans, raw garlic, nuts, bran, seeds, fish, eggs, spinach, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin B9: Folic acid and folate are two terms we often use interchangeably for vitamin B9, which helps the cells in the body make and maintain DNA. B9 is also important in the production of red blood cells. Dietary intake recommendations for B9 aren’t higher in older adults than younger people, but even marginal deficiencies can elevate blood homocysteine levels, which might increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and other types of dementia. Sources include many legumes, vegetables, eggs, and some fruits.
- Vitamin B12: This is important in making blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been associated with megaloblastic anemia, memory loss, and age-related hearing loss. Individuals over age 50 should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12. Sources include meat, shellfish, eggs, milk, and cheese.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is important for the immune system, cardiovascular system, and eye function—and it’s also an excellent antioxidant, which helps protect cells from damage. It helps protect or delay the onset of cancers, heart disease, arthritis, stroke, immune problems, and premature aging. Intake of at least 400 mg daily is particularly important for older adults who are at higher risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, or cataracts. The best sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, berries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, and greens.
- Vitamin D: We need vitamin D to absorb calcium and also to prevent the formation of osteomalacia (bone softening). As we age, we need more vitamin D, and our bodies’ ability to synthesize vitamin D in the skin decreases with age. The RDA for vitamin D are 600 International Units (IU) per day and 800 IU for adults over age 70. Sources include sunlight, dairy foods, cod liver oil, fish canned in oil, tofu, eggs, soy milk, and mushrooms.
- Calcium: Inadequate amounts of calcium contribute significantly to the development of osteoporosis. Calcium is also necessary for proper heart, muscle, and nerve function, as well as proper blood clotting. Recommended daily intakes of calcium for men and women ages 51 to 70 are 1,200 mg. Sources include milk, yogurt, cheese, sardines, and dark leafy green vegetables.
- Iron: We need iron to make hemoglobin (oxygen-carrying proteins found in red blood cells) and myoglobin (oxygen-carrying proteins found in muscles). An iron deficiency causes anemia. Women need less iron after menopause, and older adults more readily store iron than younger adults. Sources include red meat, egg yolks, dark leafy greens, dried fruit, and iron-fortified cereals.
- Zinc: We need zinc for proper immune function, as well as cell division, cell growth, wound healing, and the breakdown of carbohydrates. Zinc may also help to prevent or slow the onset of age-related macular degeneration. Sources include oysters, beef, lamb, nuts, seeds, wheat germ, spinach, and beans.
So there you have it—the requirements for healthy eating as we age. Here’s to our good health!