3 Cautions About Dietary Supplements for Seniors

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The supplement industry is huge. So huge and influential, in fact, that it spends millions of dollars each year lobbying the government to maintain its status quo. A few large, reputable brands do exist, but the rest are no better than snake oil salesmen. They sell empty promises, push unfounded claims, and worst of all, many of them could even poison you. Since senior citizens are especially vulnerable to the harms of bad supplements, here are three cautions about the supplement industry that every older adult should know.

1. The supplement industry is loosely regulated.

The supplement industry has virtually no oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The industry gets away with many of its unproven claims with a simple disclaimer: “These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA.” The statement allows companies to say more or less anything they want about their product.

It’s a marketer’s dream. “Promotes heart health” or “promotes liver health” are common taglines printed on supplement labels. What seniors need to understand is that these are entirely unproven statements, and medical science has actually shown that most the fantastical claims made by supplement companies are outright false.

As an example, The New York Times reported that fish oil supplements, which have been touted for years as being beneficial to heart health and are consumed by no fewer than 10 percent of the American population, are in fact useless. More troubling, some of the studies cited demonstrated that the supplements tend to do more harm than good.

2. What’s on the label may not be what’s in the bottle.

Since supplement companies are not regulated by the FDA, there is no concrete guarantee that what is on the label will actually be in the bottle. A recent rash of lawsuits targeting protein manufacturers have exposed a common practice among supplement companies called spiking. Spiking is the practice of adding filler to replace a certain amount of the supplement listed on the label.

It's a practice that supplement companies have used for decades to increase their profit margins. While the FDA issues guidelines for product labeling on supplements, they have no legal basis to enforce those guidelines. So, very commonly, consumers purchase far less of the supplement they wanted than was advertised on the bottle. Spiking has also caused other problems, such as the presence of heavy elements like lead and mercury in certain products.

Third party laboratories test these products product quality and purity, and these laboratories generally add a quality assurance label to the products they test. The danger here is that many of these labs are now bankrolled by the supplement companies themselves, so it is important to do some research on which quality assurance companies are the most reputable. Generally speaking, Canadian and Australian companies tend to be more reliable because supplements are regulated in those countries, so their standards are much higher and testing more rigorous.

3. Supplement companies are now targeting seniors.

The most troubling news story pertaining to the supplement industry in 2016 was the revelation that more and more supplement companies are targeting seniors with false claims and dangerous products. As reported by non-profit news outlet Fair Warning early this year, alleged memory-boosting supplements by the company Prevagen, which targets seniors, have caused a wide range of problems for many consumers. Not only were the claims Prevagen made entirely unfounded, but many seniors who tried the supplements experienced troubling side effects, such as headaches, depression and anxiety.

“The marketers of Prevagen preyed on the fears of older consumers experiencing age-related memory loss,” Jessica Rich, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau, said in a prepared statement, as reported by Fair Warning. “Yet despite the defendants’ claims, there is no scientific proof that use of the product will improve memory or provide any other cognitive benefit.”

Now that marketers in the supplement industry have turned their sights on seniors, it’s more important than ever that older adults educate themselves on the risks and benefits of supplements. Doctors are a good place to start, as they have actual medical training and understand their patients’ needs and health conditions. From there, it becomes a matter of what is necessary and what is not, and evaluating whether any one supplement is worth the risk, especially considering how dangerous they potentially may be.