Mineral Requirements for Seniors

The minerals needed to keep your body functioning far outnumber the vitamins. In fact, it's estimated there are more than 60 minerals in your body. Although recommended intakes have been set for only 17, researchers are on the verge of declaring a few more minerals essential to good health.

Though we don't hear about minerals (with the notable exceptions of calcium iron, and sodium) as much as we do vitamins, minerals are just as critical to good health. They are essential for building bones and teeth, keeping your heart beating regularly, and helping your blood to clot.

Like vitamins, minerals can be divided into two groups: macrominerals (macro means large) such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium, which are required in relatively large amounts, and trace minerals such as boron, chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc, which are required in small amounts.

Here are the minerals you will need to focus on as you age:

Calcium

Recommended Intake: Men and Women: 1,200 milligrams a day

There has been a lot of research on calcium, and much has been written about it. But there's still not 100 percent agreement on how much calcium we need to keep our bones strong as we age. The Food and Nutrition Board currently recommends a daily intake of 1,200 milligrams.

But since 1994, the National Institutes of Health has recommended 1,000 milligrams a day for men aged 50 to 65 and women of the same age who are taking estrogen replacement therapy and 1,500 milligrams for women age 50 to 65 who are not taking estrogen replacement and for all men and women older than 65.

Regardless of which recommendation is right, the fact remains that most of us don't get nearly enough of this bone-building mineral. Dietary surveys show that 90 percent of women ages 19 to 70 don't get enough. Overall, most American adults consume less than half of the amount recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board.

A low calcium intake, coupled with inadequate intake or production of vitamin D, greatly increases the risk of bone fractures in older people. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D every day can decrease the risk. An adequate intake of calcium also may contribute to the taming of high blood pressure and the prevention of polyps in the colon (growths in the colon that sometimes turn cancerous).

Magnesium

Recommended Intake: Men: 420 milligrams a day; Women: 320 milligrams a day

Like calcium and vitamin D, magnesium is an essential nutrient for bone health. However, its importance in the body is much more far-reaching. Proof of that is the fact that magnesium is involved in more than 300 metabolic processes in the body, including muscle contraction, protein synthesis, cell reproduction, energy metabolism, and the transport of nutrients into cells. It often acts as a trigger for these processes.

Magnesium is most studied, however, for its role in bone health, blood pressure regulation, cardiovascular health, and diabetes. Several studies have found that some elderly people get little magnesium in their diets. That, combined with the fact that, with age, magnesium absorption decreases and excretion in urine increases, provides the perfect formula for magnesium depletion and deficiency.

Potassium

Recommended Intake: Men and Women: 4,700 milligrams a day

Potassium is present in every cell of your body and plays a vital role in muscle contraction, transmission of nerve impulses, and maintenance of fluid balance. Experts consider adequate potassium intake a way to keep blood pressure in check and to promote bone health.

Potassium is so important to blood pressure control -- which affects your risk of stroke and other conditions -- that the Food and Drug Administration now allows potassium-rich foods to carry the following claim: "Diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke."

People who have high blood pressure should generally strive to get even more than the daily recommended intake of potassium (but should get their doctor's approval first).

While we don't know if the need for potassium increases with age, we do know that the risk of high blood pressure does, making it even more important to get plenty of potassium from foods. Ironically, many medications that are prescribed to treat high blood pressure, such as some diuretics, actually deplete the body of potassium, increasing the need for this vital mineral even more.

Selenium

Recommended Intake: Men and Women: 55 micrograms a day

Selenium is another antioxidant miracle worker, helping to protect against cancers of the colon, prostate, and lungs while boosting your immune system. Because the risk of cancer increases with age, it's important to get enough selenium to minimize your risk.

Selenium works in two major ways to fend off the disease-causing damage of free radicals.

It works side by side with vitamin C, sparing the vitamin while it shares the antioxidant burden. It also is needed for the production of an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase, which is a key player in the body's sophisticated defense system. Fortunately, selenium is easily absorbed.

However, that absorbability also makes it easy to consume too much, especially if you take a supplement. Experts recommend that you not get more than 400 micrograms a day.

Chromium

Recommended Intake: Men: 30 micrograms a day; Women: 20 micrograms a day

Chromium stimulates the action of insulin, the hormone that helps blood sugar gain entry into the cells. The mineral is also needed for the body to properly metabolize fat and to keep blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in check. As you age, chromium levels in the body drop, which may contribute to higher blood sugar levels.

Some evidence has shown that people with diabetes have a lower level of chromium in the body -- making chromium a mineral to watch in your diet. Unfortunately, there are some obstacles to getting adequate chromium, and researchers now recognize that older people may be more vulnerable to chromium depletion.

First of all, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates, such as those found in candy, cookies, cakes, and soft drinks, depletes your body's chromium stores. If you're a fan of sweets, you'll need to change your ways to ensure you're making the most of the chromium in your diet.

Secondly, a decrease in chromium stores seems to occur with age. Finally, some medications may cause a depletion of chromium. All these factors combined make it difficult to maintain an adequate level of chromium in the body.

Zinc

Recommended Intake Men: 11 milligrams a day; Women: 8 milligrams a day

Zinc is one busy mineral! Not only is it involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, it also plays an important role in the production of DNA, the blueprint for every cell in the body. And it's a part of the structure of insulin, making it crucial for regulating blood sugar levels.

Zinc is also essential for wound healing and for maintaining your immunity and your sense of taste as you age.

Dietary surveys show that about 50 percent of men and 75 percent of women over the age of 51 don't get enough zinc in their diets, making supplementation a good idea. And while a high-fiber diet is good for your health, it can interfere with your body's ability to absorb the zinc in your diet. But, if you take in too much zinc, you can actually suppress your body's ability to fight infection and negatively affect your sense of taste.

While it's critical that you get the recommended intake of zinc every day, experts recommend not taking in more than 40 milligrams a day because it may interfere with copper absorption, immune function, and taste.

You may be surprised by the list of nutrients that increase in importance with age. Continue to the next page to find out.