Dietary supplements, and in particular multivitamins and mineral supplements (MVM), are more popular today than ever before. In fact, in 2019, 77% of American adults reported they consume some form of dietary supplement, the highest percentage to date according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition.1 Among dietary supplements users, vitamins and minerals are the most popular category, with 58% of users taking an MVM supplement.1
While many populations can benefit from MVM use, older adults may find supplementation particularly beneficial because they are at increased risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies and inadequacies that contribute to age-related immune system functional decline or “immunosenescence.”2 An astonishing 35% of older adults in the US, Canada, and Europe are deficient in one or more micronutrients! Vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin D are particularly common deficiencies. This is concerning because these nutrients play especially vital roles in the immune system and deficiencies have been linked to impairments of various aspects of immune function and increased risk of illnesses like pneumonia and respiratory tract infections.2
A study conducted at the Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University investigated whether an MVM supplement could improve immune cell function in an older population. They conducted a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial among adults between 55 and 75 years old.2 One group was given a daily oral MVM for 12 weeks, while the other was given an identical-looking placebo. The given supplement included 1,000 mg of vitamin C (1111% of the Daily Value [DV]), 10mg of zinc (91% of DV), and 10 mcg of vitamin D (50% of DV), along with iron, copper, selenium, and vitamins A, E, B6, B12, and folate; a total of 7 vitamins and 4 trace minerals. Researchers measured a variety of factors including plasma levels of vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc and had participants self-report the severity and duration of any illness during the study.
The older adults who took the MVM supplement experienced statistically significant decreases in both the severity and length of reported illnesses compared to the placebo group.2 On average, those taking the supplement reported fewer than half the number of sick days and their symptoms were significantly more mild than those without the supplement. Plasma levels of vitamin C increased 126% and zinc increased 43% in those who took the supplement, while the placebo numbers were unchanged. Higher vitamin C and zinc levels along with fewer and less severe illnesses support previous research that these nutrients are vital to the immune system. These significant results show that MVM supplementation can have tangible benefits in older adults.
MVM supplements can help fill dietary gaps and prevent or reduce deficiencies that contribute to age-related immune system decline. However, not all supplements are created equal, it is important to look at which vitamins and minerals are included, as well as examining the amounts, balance and forms they come in. A wide array of vitamins and minerals as well as numerous phytonutrients all play a role in supporting immune system function.
1. Dietary Supplement Use Reaches All Time High. Council for Responsible Nutrition. https://www.crnusa.org/newsroom/dietary-supplement-use-reaches-all-time-high. Published Sept 30, 2019. Accessed Aug 21, 2020.
2. Fantacone ML, et al. The effect of a multivitamin and mineral supplement on immune function in healthy older adults: A double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. Nutrients. Aug 2020;12(8):2447.