Seniors: Exposing the hype surrounding supplements

Do we need dietary supplements as we age? Do these supplements actually live up to their claims? Are they approved by FDA for the treatment and prevention of those conditions as claimed? If you are taking one or more supplements, including vitamins, these are questions that are worth reflecting on.

The debate on whether we need dietary supplements has been going on for years. Studies published in December 2014 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, confirmed that a daily multivitamin does nothing to improve health, extend life, or prevent heart disease and memory loss.

Recent studies published by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto, and by Johns Hopkins researchers reported that even the most commonly consumed vitamins and mineral supplements (multivitamins, Calcium, Vitamin C & D) provide no consistent health benefits. On the contrary, they found evidence of possible harm from high doses of certain vitamin supplements.

The verdict is now clear. Experts instruct – “Do not waste your money on multivitamins and other dietary supplements”.

At least half of all Canadians—including 70 percent of those aged 65 and older—take multivitamin or another vitamin or supplement daily. The total price tag exceeds $12 billion per year, which should be used to purchase nutrient packed foods.

A review of nutritional requirement for different age groups shows that there is no scientific backing for the belief that older people need multi-vitamins and supplements. In fact older adults do not need any more of Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Niacin, Vitamin C, Copper, Chromium or Zinc, than younger people.

Some older adults may develop a deficiency of Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, potassium and fibre. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say that older adults need to pay special attention to their intake of Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, potassium and fiber.

This does not imply that we have to take multi-vitamins and supplements. Adopting a balanced diet is the best way to get the necessary nutrients. By increasing the intake of dairy products such as fortified milk, yogurt, and cheese, we can address the deficiency of Calcium and Vitamin D. Getting out and enjoying the sun will also help in correcting this deficiency.

Lean meat, fortified cereal, fish and seafood are sources of Vitamin B12. Fruits and vegetables provide fiber and potassium.

Some older adults may have reduced appetite because of chronic health conditions or from multiple medications. People with conditions such as Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s disease, or Celiac disease can have vitamin deficiencies because of reduced absorption of nutrients from food. Some others might have difficulty eating because of poorly fitting dentures. Vitamins and other supplements could be an option in these situations.

Some older adults who are living on fixed incomes might be unable to afford fresh vegetables and fruits. Purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables would be a better option for them.

Nowadays, companies peddle myriad supplements on the internet, often with spurious claims that they are “scientifically proven” to treat a particular ailment. Some promise to boost cognition, prevent dementia and reverse Alzheimer’s disease. However, these supplements are not approved by FDA to treat these conditions, and there has been no scientific backing for their claims.

To regulate the million dollar supplement industry, FDA has warned 17 companies to stop advertising their supplements as treatment for conditions including Alzheimer’s disease. These supplements included vitamins (B, C, D, E), minerals (Selenium, Zinc etc.), herbal products (Echinacea root, Curcumin, green tea, Ginko Biloba, etc.), and drugs previously investigated as treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and discarded (Melatonin, Glutathion, Co-enzyme Q).

Fourteen of these companies are in US, and the remaining includes one company each in Canada, India, and Singapore.

How can you ensure that you are getting all the required nutrients? The first step would be for the family physician to find out what nutrients are lacking in your diet and to test for any deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the blood. If you are found to be deficient in any nutrient, a dietitian can assist you to correct these deficiencies through diet.

According to experts, if we are eating a fairly balanced diet, including a variety of vegetables and fruits and dairy products, we are getting more micronutrients than we need to function well. Taking additional nutrients will not lead to better health and can even be harmful. The money you spend on supplements can now be used to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and oily fish.

Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. A past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle, she is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Please send your comments to

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