Dietary supplements used to refer to vitamins and minerals, but today this industry makes and sells products containing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, amino acids, herbs, probiotics or hormones in them. Supplements come in the form of pills, capsules, powders, gel tabs, extracts or liquids. You can find them added to drinks and snacks like energy bars to increase their nutritional value or to prevent health problems. A prescription from a doctor isn’t even necessary to buy these products.

Many seniors and their caregivers think, “If these ‘healthy’ products are so widely available and have such incredible benefits, why not give them a try? It can’t hurt, right?” The truth is that not everyone needs to supplement their diet and the benefits may not be as impressive as the industry would have you believe. Furthermore, in some cases dietary supplements can be detrimental to a person’s health.

Do Seniors Need Dietary Supplements?

Ads for supplements usually promise to make you feel better, keep you from getting sick or help you live longer. Often there is little, if any, scientific support for these claims. In fact, some supplements can interact with other medications and cause adverse reactions. Others are a waste of money because they don’t actually provide any health benefits.

Even medical researchers have a difficult time proving the benefits of dietary supplements. A recent study on highly touted omega-3 fish oil concluded that it wasn’t effective in reducing a person’s mortality risk or their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. These results were contrary to the popular notion that omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and manage heart disease.

So, what are consumers to do when faced with all this conflicting information? Your best bet is to consult an expert. A doctor or registered dietician should be the only sources for information and advice on dietary supplementation. A friend, neighbor, employee at a health food store or sponsor on a commercial shouldn’t be trusted to provide sound guidance regarding these products.

Another rule of thumb is that no pill can replace a balanced diet. “My motto is always ‘food first,’ ” says Rachel Berman, R.D., Director of Nutrition for Calorie Count. “Foods found in nature are always more nutritious because our bodies are used to processing vitamins and minerals that come from natural sources.”

Unfortunately, older individuals may have a difficult time planning and adhering to a healthy diet. This is where supplements may actually be necessary.


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Dietary and Nutritional Issues Are Common in Seniors

Berman does acknowledge that supplements may be beneficial for individuals who eat unvaried or restricted diets. This is especially common in seniors as there are a variety of issues that can affect their diet. Changes in the ability to taste and smell food can lead to a loss of appetite. Allergies and ailments such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease can cause discomfort and wreak havoc on an elder’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients from what they eat. Painful dentures or a weakened swallowing reflex (dysphagia) can also severely limit the foods a senior can consume safely and comfortably

If you’re worried that a senior is not getting complete nutrition through food alone, take your concerns to their primary care physician. Do not give a loved one any kind of dietary supplement before consulting with their doctor. Ask about natural, food-based alternatives to supplementation first, and be sure that they are aware of all prescription and OTC medications your loved one is taking before agreeing to add any supplements to their regimen.

Are Dietary Supplements Safe?

If you are considering supplementation for an aging loved one or yourself, you should remember that these products are not like over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must verify the safety of and science behind OTC and prescription medicines before they can be sold. However, the FDA does not monitor or approve dietary supplements before they go to market. The agency will only investigate and take action against a product if enough people report problems with it.

More of a Good Thing Isn’t Always Better

Vitamins and minerals are nutrients found naturally in food, and we all need them to stay healthy. The benefits and side effects of many vitamins and minerals have been carefully studied, but supplementation is not one-size-fits all. Our nutritional needs change as we age, take medications and develop different medical conditions. For example, vitamin K is an important factor in blood clotting, but supplementation, usually in the form of a multivitamin or a meal replacement shake, can be very dangerous for individuals who are taking blood thinning medications.

Some people think that if a little is good, then a lot must be better. That doesn’t necessarily apply to vitamins and minerals. In a best-case scenario, taking too much of a certain supplement simply results in the body flushing out the extra compounds it doesn’t need, but this still boils down to wasted money. Depending on the supplement, the age of the person taking it and their health, taking too much could be harmful. Large doses of some vitamins, minerals and even some herbs can cause side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, constipation, fainting, headaches, seizures, heart attack, or stroke, and even lead to liver or kidney damage. Perhaps most important when it comes to senior health is to be aware that the use of dietary supplements may have harmful interactions with prescription medications and could prevent them from working as they should.

When you or your care recipient use any dietary supplement for a health problem, it is important to understand that you are using that supplement as a drug. The USDA and HHS 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans set standards for nutritional intake, but it is still important to work with a physician or registered dietician to determine if supplementation is necessary and how to pursue it safely.