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Is A Multivitamin Right for You?

By Lisa M. Davila, B.S.N., M.S.
April 8, 2024
woman holding multivitamin in hand

About 70% of older adults in the U.S. use multivitamins or other dietary supplements regularly, according to an analysis from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 

"Although healthy adults who eat a varied diet rich in nutrients may not need supplements, multivitamins may be necessary if you're at risk for malnutrition or vitamin deficiencies," notes Rizwan Dar, M.D., medical director at Greenspring, an Erickson Senior Living community in Springfield, Va. 

He adds, "A poor appetite, certain medications, or having health conditions or surgeries that affect your gastrointestinal system can interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients."

What you might be missing

For instance, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that up to 40% of older adults in the U.S. have low vitamin D levels. "Because vitamin D helps your bones and muscles absorb calcium and phosphorous, low levels may lead to weak muscles and porous bones, which can contribute to falls and fractures," says Dar. 

He continues, "Your skin can manufacture vitamin D from sunlight, but using sunscreen will inhibit this process. And although vitamin D is added to some foods, few foods naturally contain it--except for fatty fish and fish liver oils. For these reasons, supplements may be necessary, especially for people with certain health conditions or those at risk for osteoporosis." 

Vitamin C occurs naturally in commonly consumed fruits and vegetables and is added to many other products. Nevertheless, researchers estimate up to 14% of seniors don't get enough, and 1% to 4% are severely deficient and may show early signs of scurvy, a disease characterized by anemia, bleeding under the skin, leg swelling, and rough scaly skin. 

B vitamins

Research also shows that three out of the eight vitamins in the B group--vitamins B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), and B12 (cobalamin)--tend to be too low in older Americans. "B vitamins are necessary for a healthy neurological system, including brain health," explains Dar. 

"They also help turn food into energy and facilitate red blood cell production. A lack of B vitamins increases your risk for anemia and neuropathy, and research suggests that it may be associated with reduced cognitive functioning, depression, and immune system problems."

Except for B12, which occurs only in animal-based foods, B vitamins can be found in beans, green leafy vegetables, eggs, nuts, seafood, whole-grain products, and fortified foods. To absorb B vitamins from food, however, your gastrointestinal tract needs to work well. 

"A decrease in stomach acid or taking medications that affect it can interfere with absorption of vitamin B12," says Dar. 

The bottom line

Symptoms of vitamin deficiencies tend to be nonspecific, so have a conversation with your health care provider if you have concerns. 

"Simple lab tests can show if your levels are low," says Dar. "Everyone should aim for a nutrient-rich diet, but because most vitamins are quickly eliminated from your system, you need to replenish them daily to maintain healthy levels. That's where a supplement might be helpful."