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March 14, 2019

Do I Need a Dietary Supplement? Tips for Older Adults

Four out of five older adults take dietary supplements to add nutrients to their diets, improve their health or protect their brains. While eating a balanced diet is the best way to get the nutrition you need, according to the National Institutes on Aging (NIA), if you don’t get enough of the vitamins and minerals you need, your doctor may recommend a supplement.

Here’s what you should consider when evaluating dietary supplements.

Do I Need a Dietary Supplement?

Though they seem to be at every store and online, chances are you don’t need to add a supplement to your diet, notes the NIA. More importantly, if you’re considering using a supplement, consider why. Is it because your neighbor is taking something and told you it cured her arthritis? Are you worried you’re not getting enough nutrients? Have you seen an appealing advertisement for something that claims to keep your brain healthy? Often, the claims made by supplement manufacturers can’t be verified, so you may be wasting your money or endangering your health.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently sent 12 warning letters to companies manufacturing supplements that claim to treat Alzheimer’s. There are a growing number of supplements that claim to treat the disease, says the Alzheimer’s Association. Problems happen when these supplements are used instead of, or alongside, treatment from a doctor. If you have concerns about your health, nutrient intake or are interested in adding a supplement to your diet, speak with your doctor or dietitian first.

How About Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are natural substances that protect you from some diseases by fighting free radicals, according to NIA, and got a lot of public attention in the late ’90s after researchers found that free radicals could contribute to an array of chronic conditions. Common antioxidants include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium, and you may have heard taking these supplements could reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer or improve your brain health.

The claims from supplement makers that antioxidant formulas can vastly improve your health are mostly unfounded, say researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. One study that examined vitamin E’s effect on cancer or heart disease prevention found the vitamin didn’t protect against the conditions. However, the Harvard researchers noted that some benefits were found with beta-carotene. While researchers found beta-carotene increased the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers, it did show a modest reduction in cognitive decline when used long-term.

The Safety of Dietary Supplements: What to Consider

The slick marketing materials for a supplement or vitamin might sound appealing, but remember the FDA does not evaluate a supplement’s efficacy or safety the same way it does prescription or over-the-counter medicines. If the organization receives a report of problems with a vitamin or supplement, it will issue a warning about it (like it did with the brain health supplements mentioned earlier).

If you want to add a supplement to your diet, the NIA recommends doing the following:

  • Find out as much as you can about the supplement. Ask your doctor, pharmacist or registered dietitian about the product. Keep in mind that what worked for your friend might not have the same effects for you.
  • Be mindful of side effects. Just because a product is labeled as natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.
  • Tell your doctor. The supplement you choose may interact with prescriptions or may worsen a medical condition.
  • Choose wisely. Check the ingredients list for ingredients you don’t need or don’t understand. Or choose the brands recommended to you by your healthcare team. Make sure the claims made by the supplement manufacturer have been backed by scientific proof. Always keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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