Thanks to modern advances, people are living longer. In 2020, the National Center for Health Statistics reported an average life expectancy of 77 years for adults in the United States. So, what’s the secret to increasing your number of healthy, active trips around the sun?
Preliminary data suggest certain dietary supplements may slow specific processes involved in aging, but it’s still unclear as to what age groups might benefit.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle over the long term is the best way to support aging healthfully.
People do not need to start taking certain vitamins or supplements just because they reach a certain age. Instead, consult your healthcare provider to determine your individual nutritional needs.
Scientific research has shown distinctive commonalities among centenarians (people living to age 100 and beyond), such as healthful lifestyle choices. More and more people are turning to dietary supplements — but can they help extend their life or health?
While no medication or substance is proven to reverse or slow aging, certain supplements may provide benefits with regard to specific physiologic processes involved in aging. Unfortunately, at this time, there isn’t a specific age for someone to start taking vitamins or supplements — unless their healthcare provider recommends it based on their health needs.
Dietary supplement anti-aging effects
The United States Food and Drug Administration defines a dietary supplement as "a product for ingestion that, among other requirements, contains a dietary ingredient intended to supplement the diet." Supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and plant extracts, among other ingredients. Supplements are appealing to many people because they're convenient. Supplements are commonly available over the counter at pharmacies or from online retailers and do not require a prescription or a consult with a healthcare provider.
While no dietary supplement is clinically proven to reverse aging, some supplements have shown anti-aging benefits through positive physiologic effects. Doctors do not typically recommend that people take certain vitamins or supplements just because they reach a certain age. Instead, nutrition and supplementation should be based on your body’s needs and how to manage any health conditions you’re facing or at risk of developing.
Common anti-aging supplements
From a nutritional standpoint, specific vitamins and minerals have Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) that vary with age. These RDAs provide guidelines representing the average daily intake levels to satisfy most healthy individuals' nutrient requirements. You are likely already meeting your RDAs with the foods in your daily diet. Let's look at several of these supplements in more depth.
Vitamin B12 plays a role in the body’s immune system by regulating red blood cells, among other essential functions. Vitamin B12 is found in the diet, but several small studies suggest that additional supplementation may support improved mental cognition, cardiovascular outcomes, and bone strength. Supplementation of B12 and other B vitamins may be especially important for older adults, vegetarians, and vegans, as well as those taking metformin, a common diabetes medication. This is because B12 deficiencies have been associated with cognitive impairment, such as dementia.
Vitamin D combats age-related bone depletion by helping the body absorb calcium, maintain bone structure, and reduce the risk of fractures. Similarly, recent research suggests vitamin D may play a role in reducing the risk of cancers and aiding in arthritis and autoimmune diseases. Sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, but many people require daily, weekly, or monthly supplementation to receive an adequate amount.
Before taking a high-dose vitamin D supplement, consult a practitioner to check your vitamin D levels — too much vitamin D can be toxic. In people prone to kidney stones, vitamin D supplementation may further raise the risk of kidney stones.
Along with vitamin D, calcium is an essential mineral for bone health and other vital functions. Calcium supplementation has been found to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures, which are more likely to occur with age. Calcium is typically obtained from dairy, fish, and other foods, but you might consider adding a calcium supplement if you struggle to meet an adequate daily intake of 1,000 mg to 1,200 mg per day. Note that different recommended daily allowances are advised for calcium intake based on a person’s age and pregnancy or lactation status.
In small clinical trials, resveratrol supplementation has been associated with improvements in cardiovascular disease, decreases in Alzheimer’s disease markers, and lower inflammation in people who smoke. More extensive studies are needed to confirm these effects.
Some studies link carnitine or L-carnitine supplementation with beneficial changes in metabolism. However, some evidence suggests that having too much L-carnitine in the body could raise the risk of cardiovascular problems, such as atherosclerosis. The National Institutes of Health states that L-carnitine supplementation is not necessary for general health. However, taking certain medications or having specific genetic or medical conditions may deplete this nutrient, making supplementation necessary for some individuals.
When to start taking supplements
Aging affects everyone differently and can manifest as physical changes, including slowing metabolism, declining organ function, hormonal changes, and cognitive changes. Supplementation of particular vitamins or a multivitamin may become a necessity with aging. The body may become deficient in specific vitamins and minerals as you age because your body can no longer absorb nutrients from your diet.
Before starting any new vitamins or dietary supplements, talk with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure appropriate product selection. They can also guide you on the proper dosage for your age and how to minimize the risk of interactions with other medications.
What does science say?
Brain health is vital to overall well-being. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, no clinical trials have definitively validated whether any dietary supplement, such as ginkgo Biloba, improves memory or cognition. Additionally, the Global Council on Brain Health states, “scientific evidence does not support the use of any supplement to prevent, slow, reverse, or stop the cognitive decline or dementia or other related neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” Despite this, a 2021 AARP survey found that one in five adults ages 50 and over takes a vitamin or supplement for their brain health.
In a longitudinal study following 6,000 British service employees for 17 years, “successful aging” was found in those who did not smoke, exercised regularly, moderately consumed alcohol, and received work support.
Tips for successful aging
The term “successful aging” refers to growing older, free from chronic disease while maintaining good mental and physical health. Successful aging is influenced by various factors and cannot be chalked up to simply taking certain supplements. Instead, many variables play a role in healthy aging, some of which are lifestyle-related and can be changed, while others (like genetics) cannot.
Lifestyle choices to promote successful aging include:
- Exercise. Regular exercise, such as walking, aerobics, and strength training, is associated with positive short and long-term health outcomes by regulating weight, improving metabolism, improving mobility, and reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes;
- Limiting alcohol. Moderate or limited alcohol consumption can improve physical and mental health. Excessive alcohol use negatively affects mental health, memory, sleep, and relationships and also increases the risk of diseases such as liver disease;
- Healthy diet. Avoiding processed foods and maintaining a balanced diet can lower the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical complications;
- Wearing sunscreen. Regularly wearing sunscreen can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and other signs of sun damage while helping to prevent sunburn and skin cancer;
- Quitting smoking. Tobacco use is a leading cause of preventable death and is also the leading cause of cancer, respiratory diseases, and stroke. Quitting tobacco can minimize your risk of developing these complications.
Improving healthy habits can lead to a better lifestyle and prolonged lifespan, limiting risks of developing other chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
It is hard to say if taking a supplement may slow the aging process, though scientific studies continue to explore this topic. Preliminary data suggests that there may be some benefit for certain dietary supplements slowing specific processes involved in aging. However, the verdict is still unclear as to what age groups might benefit the most.