Taking a dietary supplement or two (or five) every day isn’t exactly uncommon. About 70 percent of adults age 60 and older reported taking at least one supplement in the past month — be it a multivitamin or a chocolate-flavored calcium chew, a 2017 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found. About 30 percent took at least four.
Research from AARP found that share to be even higher: 78 percent of adults 50 and older who participated in a 2021 survey said they are currently taking vitamins or supplements. Among adults 65 and older, the percentage shoots up to 83.
But what’s really worth taking? And what should be left on the grocery store shelf?
“In most cases, it is person-specific,” says Lingtak-Neander Chan, professor of pharmacy at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy in Seattle. The decision, he says, should be based on “underlying health conditions, diet, access to food and other individual factors.”
Trade that pill for food
Or, if you must, have both
One of the best ways to get all of your essential vitamins and minerals is the old-fashioned way: through a healthy, balanced diet (proteins, veggies, fiber and fluids).
Here’s where you can find calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12:
- Calcium: tofu, broccoli, collard greens, kale and various dairy products
- Vitamin D: yogurt, milk, fatty fish, beef liver, mushrooms
- Vitamin B12: poultry, meat, clams, dairy, eggs
The majority of older adults can get the nutrients they need from foods in a varied, healthy diet. That said, if you’re worried you’re missing the nutritional mark — your doctor can test you for a deficiency — calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 are three supplements worth considering, Chan says.
That’s right, only three. But they’re mighty important.
As we age, our bodies typically don’t absorb vitamins and minerals as well as they used to. The poster child for this is calcium, and a deficiency can lead to bone fractures and, eventually, falls. If you don’t get enough calcium from dairy, leafy greens and other calcium-rich foods (and women over 50 and men over 70 often don’t, according to the National Institutes of Health), your body sources it from your bones, making them weaker. A lack of consistent, weight-bearing exercise can make this worse.
Postmenopausal women are especially at risk for weak bones. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 1 in 2 women over 50 will break a bone due to the bone-weakening disease osteoporosis; for men, it's up to 1 in 4. A woman’s chance of fracturing a hip is about the same as her risk of developing breast, uterine and ovarian cancer combined. But a hip fracture is more likely to be fatal for men. So it’s not just women who should mind their calcium intake.
How much calcium do you need? Here’s what the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements says:
- 1,200 milligrams (mg) calcium per day for women age 51 and older
- 1,000 mg calcium per day for men ages 51 to 70
- 1,200 mg calcium per day for men age 71 and older
When it comes to supplements, calcium can be found in multivitamin pills and chews; there are also supplements that contain only calcium or that pair it with one other nutrient, like vitamin D.
If you opt for calcium carbonate (which is more affordable than calcium citrate, the other form found in supplements), you should probably take it with food. If you also take a supplement that contains iron, you should take that at least four hours apart from your calcium pill, Chan says. Make sure to check with your doctor about whether any medications you’re on interact with calcium supplements (for example, bisphosphonates to treat osteoporosis; the thyroid hormone levothyroxine; and tetracycline-class antibiotics) or if there are any side effects (constipation, for example) that are cause for concern.
This part is important: A bigger dose isn’t better. And taking more than what’s recommended won’t make your bones even stronger. In fact, “a mega amount” of calcium can cause harm, Chan says.