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The great supplement rip-off

Walking into a pharmacy these days is an experience that can leave your head spinning with aisle after aisle of supplements promising the elixir of youth. But can they really do anything other than drain your bank account?

Study after study has shown that the vast majority of what’s on offer when it comes to supplements is completely ineffectual, yet seniors still consume these pills in great quantities. Almost 70 per cent of over-65s say they take at least one supplement a day, and almost a third take four or more. So, is there any benefit to older people from taking dietary supplements? And if so, what should you be looking for?

It’s no surprise retirees often require a nutritional top-up every now and again. As we grow older, our bodies become less effective at absorbing certain vitamins and minerals, which can lead to chronic deficiencies. Iron, calcium, B12, vitamin D, potassium and magnesium are all well-known sources of nutritional issues among over-65s. Left unchecked, these shortfalls can lead to a variety of symptoms and conditions, from muscle loss and anaemia to osteoporosis, high blood pressure and stroke, as well as a generally diminished sense of well-being.

Enter the multivitamins, right? Well, not so fast. While, generally speaking, there are few recognised issues with taking multivitamins, there’s also absolutely no evidence that they do anything positive for your general health. That is, if you haven’t been told by your doctor that you need to be taking a nutritional supplement, then you probably don’t. The one exception to this may be vitamin D, which is produced by the skin when it comes in contact with the sun, and which an increasing number of experts believe should be prescribed for all seniors.


No supplement for good eating

The medical consensus on nutritional deficiences is clear: the best way of combatting them is through your diet. Our bodies are much better at processing the nutrients it requires when they arrive in their natural form. That means dairy for calcium, red meat for iron, white meat for B12, eggs for protein, fresh produce for magnesium and potassium. If a blood test reveals you have a vitamin shortfall, then the most likely prescription will probably be food. Supplements, when used, will usually be given as a corrective to a medically restricted diet, or where you’re struggling to find enough relevant nutrients yourself due to reduced appetite or dry mouth. 

One reason for this caution is that, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, more is not always better. Our bodies do their best to keep all the various nutrients we require in a fine balance, but if we start adding large, condensed amounts of certain vitamins into the system, we run the risk of creating toxicity. While our bodies can usually flush out excess vitamins before they become dangerous, in older people there’s a greater chance of build-up, which can lead to nausea, diarrhea and headaches, or even, in extreme cases, liver damage, heart attack or stroke.

But if you do choose to take or continue taking supplements, it’s important to consult with your doctor first. They’ll have the most up-to-date information on what’s been deemed safe and effective, and can also warn you if there’s a chance your supplements might adversely interact with other medications you’re currently taking. For instance, vitamin K, often found in multivitamins, can create dangerous side-effects in people taking blood-thinning medication. While the chance of toxicity or a negative side-effect is small, given the lack of medical evidence in favour of general multivitamin use, it would always seem better to be safe than sorry.