While age alone does not cause nutritional deficiencies, certain medications, medical conditions, decreased caloric needs, surgeries and injuries can increase the need for certain vitamins and minerals in older people. As a result, it is estimated that over two-thirds of older American are at moderate or high risk of having nutritional deficiencies.

Such deficiencies are associated with a number of health risks, including decreased immunity, which is especially worrisome in older people, since aging is associated with decreased immunity and increased risk of infection. Some studies have indicated that vitamin and mineral supplementation may have a beneficial effect on the immune system. But other studies have found that this benefit does not necessarily translate into effective protection against infection among healthy older people.

A new study in the August 6, 2005 issue of the British Medical Journal found that vitamin and mineral supplementation, in fact, did not affect risk of infection, use of health services, or quality of life in healthy people aged 65 and older

About the Study

This study included 910 men and women aged 65 and older living in Scotland. The participants were not taking vitamin or mineral supplements when they entered the study.

The researchers randomly assigned the participants to receive either a multivitamin/multimineral tablet or a placebo tablet every day for a year.

The participants answered questionnaires and kept a diary to record their risk of nutritional deficiencies, number of visits to the doctor for infection, number of days of infection (self-reported), and health-related quality of life. The researchers also used medical records to assess the participants’ antibiotic use and hospitalizations during the study period.

The Findings

Whether the participants were taking the supplement or placebo did not affect infection-related doctor visits, days of infection, quality of life, or any other measured outcomes.

The participants’ risk of nutritional deficiencioes at the start of the study did not influence whether the supplements were beneficial.

The authors acknowledge that their findings are limited by the fact that the doses of vitamins and minerals in the supplements were relatively low, and it is possible that higher doses may have yielded different results.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that vitamin and mineral supplementation in healthy older adults probably does not prevent infection. However, previous studies have indicated that supplementation may help prevent infection in older adults who reside in nursing homes, a finding that future randomized trials will need to sort out.

This is not to say that vitamin supplementation does not provide any benefit for healthy older adults. Calcium and vitamin D supplementation, for instance, is recommended to help prevent osteoporosis . And B vitamins may help protect against heart disease .

If you are concerned about your nutritional status, talk to your physician or a dietitian. The benefits of a healthful diet likely go beyond the specific vitamins and minerals in the food. Instead of relying on a pill to improve your overall health, you will be best served by getting plenty of exercise and consuming a healthful diet. But if you are unable or unwilling to consume the variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and meat or meat alternatives needed for a well-balanced diet, or if you are taking medications or have a medical condition that affects your nutritional status, a multivitamin supplement may help ensure you are getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs.