Supplements for Seniors – Are They Helping Us or Hurting Us?

Ever since we popped our first children’s multivitamins as kids, the world has told us supplements help us lead a healthier lifestyle by picking up the slack of our poor diets. By fueling our bodies with the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals, we can stand up to germs, sleep better at night and keep our internal systems running smoothly.

But as anyone can tell you, too much of a good thing can be bad for the body. Going overboard on supplements or neglecting to research possible drug interactions can have dangerous consequences—each year, supplements are responsible for 23,000 emergency room visits, and seniors are at the biggest risk for adverse side effects.

If you or your loved one is over age 65 and using supplements on a regular basis, be sure you truly understand the benefits and risks of what you’re putting in your body each day.

Why seniors need supplements

According to Emory University, 50 percent of seniors take a vitamin or other supplement daily. In many cases, due to lifestyle changes as we age, multivitamins are often necessary. For instance, a drop in physical activity means a drop in our appetite, and when we eat less, we may not be getting all the nutrients our body requires. In addition, if a senior is homebound, they often aren’t receiving the natural shot of Vitamin D they need from the sun.  Some vitamins and minerals that may be necessary in our older years include:

  • Calcium – To combat the effects of osteoporosis, medical experts recommend 1,200 mg of calcium daily for women over age 50 and men over age 70.
  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D helps the body absorb that calcium, contributing to better bone health in the years ahead.
  • Vitamin B-12 – Up to 15 percent of seniors are deficient in B-12, the vitamin which helps produce the red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout the body.
  • Fiber – Fiber supplements help regulate bodily functions and lower your risk for heart disease and may help Type 2 diabetes.
  • Iron – Many seniors struggle with anemia and fatigue due to a decline of iron in their red blood cells.

When those extra vitamins and minerals become dangerous

What surprises most people is that in comparison to traditional over-the-counter medications, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires no safety testing, a listing of side effects on the packaging or even FDA approval before a supplement hits the shelves. Without getting advice from a medical provider or nutritionist, seniors are left to navigate a crowded supplement market on their own, which can be life-threatening when precautions aren’t taken.

What are most significant risks to seniors?

  • Going overboard on supplements. As we grow older, our metabolism changes and is unable to break down medications and supplements like it used to. That increases our risk for possible side effects—especially if we don’t follow dosing instructions. For instance, if a senior accidentally doubles that daily recommended dose of iron they need to prevent anemia, they can actually cause irreparable damage to their liver.
  • Neglecting to understand drug interactions. Even the safest supplement can be dangerous when combined with prescription medications. Melatonin for better sleep interferes with diabetes medications; while taking St. John’s Wort to ease depression symptoms can keep blood thinners, heart medications and transplant drugs from working properly. A good at-home resource to use before shopping is WebMD’s Drug Interaction Checker.
  • Failing to tell healthcare providers about the supplements they’re taking. Most seniors remember to inform providers of the prescription and OTC drugs they take, but many neglect to share the supplements they use. This omittance can be incredibly problematic when it comes to certain treatments and surgeries. For those receiving chemotherapy, Vitamin C or E can counteract the drugs’ effectiveness. In addition, Vitamin K can reduce a blood thinner’s ability to keep blood from clotting following surgery.

Protecting you and your loved one from the side effects of supplements

The best way for seniors to avoid any unexpected problems from multivitamins and supplements is to discuss the topic with their medical provider before making a purchase. A doctor, nutritionist or home health care provider can determine if supplements need to be taken in the first place (in most instances, they’re not if a senior is following a proper diet) and recommend safe options that will improve your overall wellness for years to come.

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