The Golden Years: 5 Key Steps for Healthy Aging

Growing old is an inevitable part of life, and often, health problems are an inevitable part of growing old. But don’t resign yourself to spend your golden years permanently fixed to your recliner suffering from poor health! There are ways to age gracefully and live healthfully ever after… and it’s never too early (or too late!) to start.

We are fundamentally biochemical creatures, and nutrients provide the building blocks of our bodies’ biochemistry. Unfortunately, the thousands of chemical reactions that keep us alive and active become less efficient with age. As these inefficiencies grow, more can go wrong, increasing our risk of disease. Maintaining an optimal nutritional foundation through a healthy diet is crucial for functioning at our best, but sometimes a good diet along isn’t enough – nutritional status may be compromised by prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, which can interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption or utilization. This is no small matter. According to an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 81 percent of middle-age men and women and seniors use at least one prescription medication and 29 percent use at least five prescription drugs concurrently. About half of people also take OTC drugs.[1] In effect, millions of people likely suffer from drug-induced nutritional deficiencies, with the drugs ranging from acid blockers to antibiotics. Everyone can benefit from a good multivitamin supplement, but if you’re taking prescriptions or OTC drugs, it is especially important to take a high-potency multivitamin to guard against drug-induced deficiencies.

Eating healthy, wholesome foods, taking a regular multivitamin, and engaging in regular physical activity all contribute to a healthy foundation and help maintain physical and mental fitness as we age. Additionally, the following steps offer suggestions on how to encourage healthy aging in five specific areas: digestion and absorption of nutrients; muscle strength and mobility; pain and inflammation; energy production; and brain health.

Step 1: Focus on Nutrient Intake, Digestion, and Absorption

A decline in the sense of taste is commonly associated with aging, which may explain why many seniors do not consume sufficient amounts of nutrient-dense foods – food is just not as appealing as it once was. But a diet lacking nutrient-dense foods means a body lacking essential nutrients. Do your best to include a healthy protein, fat, and vegetables in every meal. Because low intake of the mineral zinc can reduce taste sensitivity further (white spots on the fingernails are a sign of zinc deficiency), add zinc-rich foods to your diet (oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, and peanuts are all good sources of zinc) or consider taking a zinc supplement. Try 15-25 mg of zinc daily.

For vibrant health, you must have a healthy digestive system, but thirty percent of people over age 65 suffer from atrophic gastritis, chronic inflammation of the stomach lining resulting in reduced production of stomach acid, enzymes, and intrinsic factor (necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12). Atrophic gastritis hinders digestion of food and absorption of nutrients, including B12, folic acid, calcium, iron, and beta-carotene. It may also lead to bacterial overgrowth in the stomach and small intestine.[2]

Acid-blocking drugs (e.g., Prilosec® and Nexium®) and the diabetes medication metformin also interfere with vitamin B12 absorption. A three-year study published in the British Medical Journal found that the longer people with diabetes took metformin, the more likely they were to develop vitamin B12 deficiency.[3] Low levels of vitamin B12 may result in fatigue, psychiatric disorders, mental fuzziness, and symptoms of senility.[4] Because vitamin B12 can be difficult to absorb through the gut, opt for the lozenge form. Try 1,000 mcg daily of the methylcobalamin form of vitamin B12.

To support healthy digestion and enhance nutrient absorption, consider taking probiotic supplements, digestive enzymes, and/or betaine hydrochloric acid (avoid this supplement if you have peptic ulcers). Look for supplements that provide a variety of probiotics and digestive enzymes. Adding bioperine, an extract of black pepper, can also enhance absorption of your dietary supplements.

Step 2: Maintain Your Physical Functionality

As we age, we lose bone density and muscle tissue, which can lead to frailty, a lack of physical mobility, and the loss of physical independence. Although most people focus on calcium to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and broken bones, the evidence now suggests that weak muscles set the stage for falls and subsequent fractures.

Resistance training with weights can slow this loss, as can eating sufficient protein. Certain supplements can help preserve muscle as well. For example, you need vitamin D to make both bone and muscle, yet three of every four Americans are deficient in this important vitamin. Seniors have a particularly high risk of deficiency because they spend a lot of time indoors and away from the vitamin D-producing benefits of sunlight. Several studies have found that supplementation reduces the likelihood of falls.[5] [6] [7] [8] I recommend 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily because, based on a new study in Osteoporosis International, this amount is more likely to restore normal levels of the vitamin.[9]

Amino acid supplements can enhance muscle as well. Muscle is made primarily of protein and amino acids are the chemical building blocks of protein. It’s not surprising then that amino acid supplements can help preserve muscle and reduce the risk of sarcopenia, the most serious type of age-related muscle loss.

In a study of seniors, reported in The American Journal of Cardiology, daily multi amino acid supplements led to significant increases in muscle and strength after as little as six months.[10] [11] I suggest taking eight to 11 grams daily of a blend of eight to 10 amino acids, either in the form of capsules or a protein drink. Alternatively, you can try taking 3 grams of L-leucine, an amino acid that plays a central role in muscle production. One study found that L-leucine supplements helped increase muscle production in older men almost to the same level as in young men.[12] Furthermore, L-leucine supplements can increase muscle even when combined with a low protein diet.[13]

Step 3: Reduce Pain and Inflammation

Pain and inflammatory diseases reduce physical mobility and overall quality of life. Several B vitamins – specifically, vitamins B1, B6, and B12 – have mild analgesic properties and are far safer than drugs.[14] [15] In one study, a combination of these vitamins enabled patients to reduce the amount of pain-relieving drugs they were taking.[16]

Two types of healthy fats can reduce inflammation, which usually underlies chronic pain. The omega-3s, found in fish oils and some types of algae supplements, contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA boosts the body’s production of prostaglandin E3, an anti-inflammatory compound, and DHA increases the activity of resolvins, another family of anti-inflammatory substances. You can combine omega-3 supplements with gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an extract of plant oils. GLA increases production of prostaglandin E1, another anti-inflammatory compound. Try 1 to 3 grams of omega-3s and 300 to 1,500 mg of GLA daily.

Vitamin D also plays an important role in regulating pain. In a study of more than 3,000 men, low vitamin D levels were associated with a 50 percent greater risk of “chronic widespread pain.”[17] Meanwhile, doctors in New Zealand reported that one-third of patients at a pain clinic had marginal or deficient levels of vitamin D.[18] A doctor writing in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine described six patients with severe back pain, two of whom who had undergone back surgery. All of the patients improved after taking 1,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D daily for at least three to six weeks.[19] Opt for 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily.

Curcumin, an extract of turmeric root, inhibits the activity of several inflammation-promoting factors, including prostaglandin E2, cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX). [20] [21] [22] Human and experimental studies have shown curcumin to help in rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, diabetic retinopathy, lung disorders, and psoriasis. [23] [24] The beneficial amount can vary from 1 to 3 grams daily.[25] Take curcumin with bioperine to enhance absorption.

Step 4: Reduce Fatigue and Boost Your Energy

Fatigue is one of the most common complaints doctors hear from their patients. Although fatigue can have many different causes, in otherwise healthy seniors it may be related to an age-related slowing of energy-generating biochemical reactions.

The energy that powers our bodies and minds results from a complex series of chemical reactions that occur in mitochondria, cellular structures that break down food molecules for energy. Glucose and fat provide the fuel for energy, but they are of little value without the vitamins and vitamin-like nutrients that actually drive the biochemical reactions.

All of the B-complex vitamins are needed for these reactions, but vitamins B1, B2, and B3, and pantothenic acid (B5) are of particular importance. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) shuttles energy-carrying electrons in the mitochondria. L-carnitine, found in protein, transports fat into the mitochondria for burning, and vitamin C is needed to make L-carnitine. Alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant, is also needed for energy production, and some research indicates that quercetin can increase mitochondria and endurance.[26] [27] [28] Try these supplements one by one, eventually taking them all, if necessary: a high-potency B-complex, 100 mg of CoQ10, 1-2 grams L-carnitine, 100-300 mg alpha-lipoic acid, and 1,000 mg quercetin.

Pre-diabetes and type-2 diabetes, characterized by elevated blood sugar levels, are also common causes of fatigue and poor mental concentration – and blood sugar levels tend to increase with age. Adopting a high-protein, high-vegetable, low-carb diet can help control blood sugar levels, but some supplements can help as well. Among the best are silymarin, chromium, and biotin.

Step 5: Keep Your Brain Sharp

Last but not least, you want to maintain the health of your brain and stay mentally sharp. Two recent reports point to the value of a daily multivitamin supplement in terms of memory. Australian researchers analyzed 10 studies, including 3,200 people, who had taken multivitamin supplements for at least one month. People taking the vitamins had better recall.[29] Meanwhile, an eight-year European study of 4,447 people found that taking modest amounts of vitamins and minerals led to better long-term recall of words and better decision-making abilities, compared with people who had taken placebos.[30]

The omega-3s are essential for normal brain development in infants and children, and they also appear to help adults maintain clearer thinking processes. Researchers at the University of California studied 1,575 seniors and found that people with low blood levels of DHA were more likely to have smaller brain sizes and poorer thinking and decision-making processes, compared with people who had higher DHA levels.[31] And in May, an article in the journal Neurology reported that people with high intake of omega-3s (EPA and DHA) had relatively low blood levels of amyloid protein, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.[32]

And don’t forget about antioxidants. Vitamins C and CoQ10 are well known for their roles in protecting the brain and central nervous system. For example, irritability is one of the first symptoms of vitamin C deficiency, and fatigue is the other principal sign, according to research conducted at the National Institutes of Health.[33] Meanwhile, CoQ10 has been found to enhance the activity of mitochondria, the cellular power plants that provide energy to both the body and brain.[34]

One of the greatest fears of aging is losing the physical and mental abilities to do all of the things we love doing. Getting older increases our risk of disability, and disability limits our physical independence. Eating healthy foods, exercising, and taking certain supplements to enhance our biochemistry can go a long way toward maintaining health and fitness in our golden years.




[3] de Jager J, Kooy A, Lehert P, et al. Long term treatment with metformin in patients with type 2 diabetes and risk of vitamin B12 deficiency: randomised placebo controlled trial. BMJ, 2010;340:c2181

[4] Selhub J, Troen A, Rosenberg IH. B vitamins and the aging brain. Nutrition Reviews, 2010;68 Suppl 2:S112-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00346.x.

[5] Trivedi DP, Doll R, Khaw KT. Effect of four monthly oral vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplementation on fractures and mortality in men and women living in the community: randomised double blind controlled trial.  BMJ, 2003;326:469-472.

[6] Venning G. Recent developments in vitamin D deficiency and muscle weakness among elderly people. BMJ, 2005;330:524-526.

[7] Flicker L, MacInnis RJ, Stein MS, et al. Should older people in residential care receive vitamin D to prevent falls? Results of a randomized trial. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 2005;53:1881-1888.

[8] Bischoff-Ferrari HA, Orav EJ, Dawson-Hughes B. Effect of cholecalciferol plus calcium on falling in ambulatory older men and women. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2006;166:424-430.

[9] Diamond T , Wong YK, Golombick T. Effect of oral cholecalciferol 2,000 versus 5,000 IU on serum vitamin D, PTH, bone and muscle strength in patients with vitamin D deficiency. Osteoporosis International, 2012: epub ahead of print.

[10] Solerte SB, Gazzaruso C, Bonacasa R, et al. Nutritional supplements with oral amino acid mixtures increases whole-body lean mass and insulin sensitivity in elderly subjects with sarcopenia. American Journal of Cardiology, 2008; 101[suppl]69E-77E.

[11] Borsheim E, Bui QUT, Tissier S, et al. Effect of amino acid supplementation on muscle mass, strength and physical function in elderly. Clinical Nutrition, 2008; 27(2):189-95.

[12] Koopman R, Verdijk L, Manders RJ, et al. Co-ingestion of protein and leucine stimulates muscle protein synthesis rates to the same extent in young and elderly lean men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006;84:623-32.

[13] Casperson SL, Sheffield-Moore M, Hewlings SJ, et al. Leucine supplementation chronically improves muscle protein synthesis in older adults consuming the RDA for protein. Clinical Nutrition, 2012: epub ahead of print.

[14] Jurna I. Analgesic and analgesia-potentiating action of B vitamins. Schmerz, 1998;12:136-141.

[15] Jurna I, Reeh PW. How useful is the combination of B vitamins and analgesic agents? Schmerz, 1992;6:224-226.

[16] Medina-Santillan R. Perez-Flores E, Mateos-Garcia E, et al. A B-vitamin mixture reduces the requirements of diclofenac after tonsillectomy: a double-blind study. Drug Development Research, 2006;66:36-39.

[17] McBeth J, Pye SR, O’Neill TW, et al. Musculoskeletal pain is associated with very low levels of vitamin D in men: results from the European male ageing study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 2010; doi 10.1136/ard.2009.116053.

[18] Bartley J. Prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among patients attending multidisciplinary tertiary pain clinic. New Zealand Medical Journal, 2008;121:57-62.

[19] Schwalfenberg G. Improvement of chronic back pain or failed back surgery with vitamin D repletion: a case series. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 2009;22:69-74.

[20] Rao CV. Regulation of COX and LOX by curcumin. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 2007;595:213-26

[21] Bhandarkar SS, Arbiser JL. Curcumin as an inhibitor of angiogenesis. . Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 2007;595: 185-95

[22] Sharma RA, Euden SA, Platton SL, et al. Phase I clinical trial of oral curcumin: biomarkers of systemic activity and compliance. Clinical Cancer Research, 2004;10:6847-6854.

[23] Funk JL, Frye JB, Oyarzo JN, et al. Efficacy and mehanism of action of turmeric supplements in the treatment of experimental arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 2006;54:3452-3464

[24] Hanai H, Iida T, Takeuchi K, et al. Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 2006;4:1502-6.

[25] Sharma RA, Euden SA, Platton SL, et al. Phase I clinical trial of oral curcumin: biomarkers of systemic activity and compliance. Clinical Cancer Research, 2004;10:6847-6854.

[26] Davis JM, Murphy EA, Carmichael MD. Effects of the dietary flavonoid quercetin upon performance and health. Curr Sports Med Rep, 2009;8:206-213.

[27] Davis JM, Murphy EA, Carmichael MD, et al. Quercetin increases brain and muscle mitochondrial biogenesis and exercise tolerance. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 2009;296:R1071-1077.

[28] Davis JM, Murphy EA, McClellan JL, et al. Quercetin reduces susceptibility to influenza infection following stressful exercise. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 2008;295:R505-509.

[29] Grima NA, Pase MP, Macpherson H, et al. The effects of multivitamins on cognitive performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2012: epub ahead of print.

[30] Kesse-Guyot E, Fezeu L, Jeandel C, et al. French adults’ cognitive performance after daily supplementation with antioxidant vitamins and minerals at nutritional doses: a post hoc analysis of the Supplementation in Vitamins and Mineral Antioxidants (SU.VI.MAX) trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011;94:892-899.

[31] Tan ZS, Harris WS, Beiser AS, et al. Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology, 2012;78:658-664.

[32] Gu Y, Schupf N, Cosentino SA, et al. Nutrient intake and plasma β-amyloid. Neurology, 2012: epub ahead of print

[33] Levine M, Conry-Cantilena C, Wang Y, et al. Vitamin C pharmacokinetics in healthy volunteers: evidence for a recommended dietary allowance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1996;93:3704-3709.

[34] Shults CW, Oakes D, Kieburtz K, et al. Effects of coenzyme Q10 in early Parkinson disease. Evidence of slowing of the functional decline. Archives of Neurology, 2002;59;1541-1550.