Supplements for Healthy Aging

By Matthew Kaufman, MD

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Key Takeaways:

Here are a few supplements that our health professionals recommend for healthy aging for individuals in midlife and beyond:

  • Creatine – To maintain and build muscle mass and potentially improve cognitive performance.
  • Vitamin D – To promote muscle and bone strength. 
  • Magnesium – To promote restful sleep and brain health.
  • B12 and B9 (folate) – To promote brain health. (B12 is particularly recommended for vegans since it is primarily found in animal products).
  • Multivitamin that is FDA-regulated or third-party tested. Unregulated supplements may not contain the active ingredients to live up to their advertised claims and may contain harmful ingredients.

As we age, taking too many supplements may be taxing to our liver and kidneys, so it’s best to screen to assess where we are deficient and supplement as needed.

Lifestyle choices are most important for maintaining good health as we age, and supplements do not replace a healthy diet and daily exercise.

As a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation resident, my patients often ask me, “What supplements should I take as I get older?” While it is a complicated question without a clear answer, it’s important to consider. 

Rather than investigating how a supplement affects the entire body as we age, researchers study how supplements impact specific aspects of health, such as sleep, muscle mass, and brain health. However, we all know that we don’t age in only one domain–the aging process affects many parts of the body. Therefore, there are multiple supplements to consider, and which supplement you take depends on your individual goals.

So, whenever I am posed with this question, I always respond with these two questions: 

1) What are your goals regarding aging? Is it just a longer lifespan, or do you also want to feel good in your 70s and 80s and maintain high-quality interactions with people and places? 

2) What aging concerns do you want to address or avoid? Some examples include optimizing your bones and muscles for sustained athletic ability, brain health and cognition performance, and your ability to have restful sleep on a consistent basis.

Which Supplements Should I Take for Healthy Aging?

Supplements to Maintain Muscle Mass and Bone Strength

As we age, the most important things we can do to maintain muscle and bone strength are resistance training at least twice weekly and consume adequate protein, especially from food (both plant and animal sources). Without these two things in place, supplements alone have not been shown to be helpful. 

Regarding protein, I recommend consuming 1.2 – 1.6 grams per kg of body weight per day. This translates to approximately 0.65 grams of protein multiplied by your body weight in pounds, to be consumed evenly over three to four meals per day. 

To maintain and build muscle mass as we age, I also recommend creatine. Consuming between 5 – 25 grams of creatine per day (either as a supplement or in food) has been shown to increase strength and muscle protein synthesis, and maintain lean body mass.

Vitamin D supplementation also has substantial evidence showing improvements in muscle and bone strength in older adults.

Supplements for Brain Health and Cognitive Performance

Some studies show that vitamin D may improve brain health and cognitive performance. Also, magnesium and higher doses of creatine have emerging evidence suggesting they could also be helpful. B vitamins like B6, B12, and B9 (folate) have also been shown to help with cognition prior to diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Many people take omega-3 supplements intending to improve cognition; however, the data is not as strong as many people suspect. Some studies suggest that these supplements are effective, and some don’t. Most experts believe that getting omega-3s from food (such as fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds) is preferable to getting them from a supplement in that they are better absorbed in the body. For my patients, I recommend consuming omega-3s by eating more salmon and enjoying a low-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

Supplements for Sleep

There is not currently a supplement that the American Academy of Sleep would recommend, however, melatonin is the most popular sleep supplement. If you find melatonin helpful, it’s important to use it at the minimum effective dose to prevent circadian rhythm shifts. There is also recent evidence that magnesium is helpful for sleep.

Lifespan vs. Healthspan

 Lifespan is the number of years we are alive, whereas healthspan is how many of those years we feel good (physically and mentally) and are healthy enough to live independently and free from debilitating diseases. 

Although there is no magic pill for a longer life, these supplements may improve your healthspan by increasing your levels of functioning and slowing the progression of chronic conditions. Healthy aging is not only about preventing illness or falls; it also encompasses the ability to engage in activities we enjoy, spend quality time with people we love, and maintain a sense of purpose and excitement as an older adult. 

When choosing a supplement, it is crucial to remember that the FDA does not regulate most supplements. Therefore, there is minimal oversight regarding the ingredients in these supplements and whether they live up to their advertised claims. Without regulation, some supplements don’t contain the active ingredient, and they may even contain ingredients that are harmful, such as heavy metals, not listed on the bottle. Therefore, it is essential to go with supplements that are third-party tested or recommended by health professionals you trust and not just rely on advertising.  

Lastly, it is most important to recognize that supplements cannot replace a poor diet or lack of exercise. We must take supplements in the context of other healthy lifestyle choices, such as adequate nutrition, sleep, exercise, and working with a medical professional to treat any medical conditions.