So many of us have strong and vivid childhood memories of daily chewable multivitamins, ideally in the likeness of our favourite cartoon characters. These vitamins, sweetened to make them palatable to the finicky taste buds of youth, were a welcome treat, stand-ins for the candy that we really wanted and were unfairly denied. It’s hardly a surprise then that many Canadians continue the habit, almost automatically into adulthood and later life, believing our nutritional health secure, though too few of us really consider how our nutritional needs change as we age.

“As we age, our bodies may have difficulty absorbing certain nutrients from foods, or there may be inadequate intakes due to a decrease in appetite,”says Andrea D’Ambrosio, National Spokesperson for the Dietitians of Canada. Vitamin B12 is a prime example, often appearing at dangerously low counts among older Canadians. Low B12 levels can cause a range of ailments from fatigue and loss of appetite to confusion and depression.

Another important case is that of vitamin D, which our bodies naturally create when exposed to sunlight. “When we get older there is a reduction in our ability to synthesize vitamin D from sunlight,” says Hélène Payette, PhD, of the University of Sherbrooke. “Also, very old people often do not really go outside without being quite well covered, so they get less sun overall.” Being low in vitamin D is a risk factor for falls, fractures and osteoporosis, as well as reduced immunity to other illnesses.

"Maintaining high levels of omega-3 fatty acids is particularly important for heart health, with high levels resulting in up to a 90 percent reduction in mortality from heart attacks."

Diet is king

“What’s most important is eating a wholesome and mostly organic diet with brightly coloured fruits and vegetables,” says Bryce Wylde, Associate Medical Director of the P3 Clinic. But people, especially older people and people with complicating health conditions, can still end up low in vital nutrients even with a healthy diet, and that’s why Dr. Wylde says it’s so important for them to receive individualized testing to determine their vitamin needs.

“In a clinical setting, I often find people aged 50 and over having very low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, for example” says Dr. Wylde. Maintaining high levels of omega-3 fatty acids is particularly important for heart health, with high levels resulting in up to a 90 percent reduction in mortality from heart attacks. While a multivitamin may contain a few hundred milligrams of omega-3 to ensure that those taking it meet their minimum levels, the sort of therapeutic dosage to be effective protection against heart attacks can easily run to the thousands of milligrams.

Even among nutritional professionals, however, there is considerable debate about optimal levels and safe upper limits for most vitamins. “If you are considering taking supplements, it’s important to check with your physician or dietitian,” says D’Ambrosio. “They will consider your health needs as well as any current medications you are taking to recommend the best dose.”

One thing is clear: for Canadians in middle age and beyond, it is vital to also target those specific nutrients — like B-12, vitamin D, and omega-3 — that we are low in, or those that might be particularly therapeutic or preventative for our own unique medical situation. And identifying your own ideal vitamin profile is always going to mean talking to your doctor.