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Seniors and Dietary Supplements

Editor’s note: In every drugstore and supermarket, there are literally aisles of products claiming to make us feel better or solve our health problems. But how helpfu can they be, and is there anything seniors in particular should know about them? Here are some answers from the federal Food and Drug Administration:

WHAT IS A DIETARY SUPPLEMENT?

Today’s dietary supplements are not only vitamins and minerals. They also include other less-familiar substances such as herbals, botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and animal extracts. Some dietary supplements are well understood and established, but others need further study. Whatever your choice, supplements should not replace the variety of foods important to a healthful diet.
Unlike drugs, dietary supplements are not pre-approved by the government for safety or effectiveness before marketing. Also, unlike drugs, supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases. But some supplements can help assure that you get an adequate dietary intake of essential nutrients; others may help you reduce your risk of disease. Some older people, for example, are tired due to low iron levels. In that case, their doctor may recommend an iron supplement.

At times, it can be confusing to tell the difference between a dietary supplement, a food, or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. This is because supplements, by law, come in a variety of forms that resemble these products, such as tablets, capsules, powders, energy bars, or drinks. One way to know if a product is a dietary supplement is to look for a label on the product that says Supplement Facts.

CAN DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS HELP OLDER CONSUMERS?

Even if you eat a wide variety of foods, how can you be sure that you are getting all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need as you get older? If you are over 50, your nutritional needs may change. Informed food choices are the first place to start, making sure you get a variety of foods while watching your calorie intake. Supplements and fortified foods may also help you get appropriate amounts of nutrients. To help you make informed decisions, talk to your doctor and/or registered dietitian. They can work together with you to determine if your intake of a specific nutrient might be too low or too high and then decide how you can achieve a balance between the foods and nutrients you personally need.

ARE THERE ANY RISKS, ESPECIALLY TO OLDER CONSUMERS?

While certain products may be helpful to some older people, there may be circumstances when these products may not benefit your health or when they may create unexpected risks. Many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body. This could make them unsafe in some situations and hurt or complicate your health. For example:

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