Five Myths and Facts About Seniors and Supplements

Mom and Dad clicked on an ad for a new herbal brain health product. In a video featured on the company's website, a customer testified that after taking the product, he was totally cured of Alzheimer's disease! Mom and Dad think maybe they should order a bottle of this new product.

According to the AARP, over half of all seniors take dietary supplements. Millions of older adults spend billions of dollars on vitamins, minerals, herbal and botanical preparations, enzymes and other similar products. Grocery stores and drugstores now have aisles of supplements. Entire stores are devoted to selling them. Yet few of us know very much about the pills and preparations we take every day. How can we be sure that the supplements we take are safe and beneficial—and that we're not throwing our money away? Check out these five common myths:

Myth #1: I can trust the claims of companies that sell supplements.

Fact: Some companies sell products with legitimate benefits. But supplements are, for the most part, unregulated. Many companies sell worthless products that promise to help us lose weight, to slow the process of aging, or to cure a host of diseases. They prey on the hopes of people who are at their most vulnerable, including seniors. These companies spend most of their money on infomercials, sophisticated scientific-sounding websites and ads in the back of magazines—often, more than they spend on the ingredients that go into their products. They might create fake "before and after" stories, or pay a celebrity spokesperson to tout the benefits of products the celeb in all likelihood has never even tried.

Myth #2: Even if a supplement doesn't help me as promised, it can't hurt me.

Fact: We take for granted that the medicines we take have been carefully tested and regulated. But supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and are not FDA-approved. They go on the market without testing. The FDA only steps in if a safety issue is suspected—and it can take a while for that to be determined, and for the product to disappear from the shelves. Many supplements are manufactured in unregulated plants overseas. There is no guarantee that a supplement contains the ingredients it claims to have, and some may actually contain harmful substances. Some are safe, but some can cause serious health problems.

Myth #3: Since I buy supplements without a prescription, I don’t need to talk to my doctor about the vitamin and herbal products I take.

Fact: When a healthcare provider asks you about the medications you take, you should report not only your prescription drugs, but also any over-the-counter substances, including supplements. Tell your doctor which products you take, how often you take them, the dosage, and why you are taking each one. Even better, talk to your doctor, pharmacist and/or a registered dietitian before you decide to take supplements. These professionals have access to the latest information on dietary supplements, and can help you decide which vitamins and other supplements would benefit you, and which would be useless or even dangerous.

Myth #4:  As we grow older, it's a good idea to take more supplements to promote healthy aging.

Fact: If you are an older adult, your doctor may recommend that you take vitamins and other dietary supplements, especially if you have a condition that keeps you from getting the nutrients you need from the foods you eat. But it's important to know that as we grow older, our bodies process substances less efficiently. It may take longer for vitamins and other supplements to be eliminated from our body, which can allow a toxic dosage to accumulate. And seniors take an average of five prescription medications, making it more likely that they will experience a dangerous interaction between prescription medications, nonprescription drugs and supplements.

Myth #5: If someone suggests I join their business selling supplements, that could be a great way to make some extra money.

Fact: A friend or acquaintance may suddenly begin singing the praises of a nutrition shake or diet product. He or she might invite you to a party where there is some social pressure to purchase these products. And then, the host might offer you the opportunity to invest and become a salesperson. These get-rich-quick schemes may especially appeal to retired people, who have a nest egg and some time on their hands. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cautions consumers to walk away from the offer if the promise of income comes not from the supplements you sell but from signing up others who then will theoretically give you a percentage of their sales. The FTC says, "If the money you make is based on the number of people you recruit and your sales to them, it's a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes are illegal, and the vast majority of participants lose money." Do your homework before buying in.

The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about the supplements you take. Do not change the way you take your medicines without consulting your healthcare provider.

Learn More

The National Institute on Aging's Age Page on dietary supplements lists beneficial supplements your doctor might prescribe.

Before you or an older loved one purchases a dietary supplement, read this tip sheet from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This resource also includes a handy chart for sharing information with your health team.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides science-based articles on vitamins for older adults.  

The Federal Trade Commission offers important information about multilevel marketing companies.  

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.