Magazine ads and television commercials tout dietary supplements that claim to be a veritable fountain of youth for seniors. Images of grandparents able to keep up with their grandkids convince older adults that shakes, energy bars, and special vitamins will help boost energy and decrease signs of aging.
Health experts, however, stress that a well-balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables is just as effective and probably safer. But many older adults skip meals and eat small amounts of fruits and vegetables, citing reasons ranging from rotten teeth to unhappiness with eating alone.
While doctors acknowledge that nutritional shakes and energy bars are helpful for seniors who need to gain weight or have trouble chewing or swallowing, those who eat a balanced diet or stay active do not need them.
In spite of what the experts have said, the savvy advertisements are convincing millions of seniors that they need these expensive supplements, some of which have not even been proven safe.
Herbs are also a source of concern. Saw palmetto, an extracts made from the fruit of the saw palmetto plant, is promoted as a treatment for an enlarged prostate. Many people believe that herbs are natural and therefore safe but this is not the case. In fact, as with most nonprescription herbal products, the composition of the extract and the dosage have not been standardized and the supplement is not regulated by the FDA. If you decide to use saw palmetto, tell your doctor in order to alert him or her to possible interactions between it and other medications you may be taking.
People who are on strict diets — like those prescribed for kidney disease, heart disease, or diabetes — must be especially wary of adding any special supplements to their diet. Regardless of whether health problems are present, you should always consult a physician before starting any dietary regimen.
May 2002 Update
In April, three studies delivered powerful evidence that fish is good for you — and could even save your life. The key is omega-3 (or n-3) fatty acids, beneficial polyunsaturated fats provided by many kinds of fish and certain plant foods.
Researchers in the Nurses' Health Study examined 16 years of data involving almost 85,000 women and found an association between fish intake and a lower risk for heart disease and death. Women who ate fish just once a week had a heart attack risk 29% lower than those who ate it less than once a month. Women who ate fish five times a week had nearly half the risk of death from a heart attack.
The Harvard's Physicians' Health Study, which involves more than 22,000 male doctors who initially had no heart disease, analyzed blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and risk for sudden cardiac death. Researchers found that such deaths were 81% less likely in men with the highest levels of omega-3s. Over half of such deaths occur in people without prior symptoms of heart disease — a compelling reason for adding more fish to your diet.
Finally, Italian researchers reported that heart attack survivors who took fish-oil supplements had a lower risk of sudden death. This trial studied omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E in 11,000 men and women who had recently suffered heart attacks. Researchers found that 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids daily reduced the risk for sudden coronary death by up to 42%. This benefit apparently reflects their calming effect on arrhythmias, potentially fatal heartbeat irregularities. Omega-3 fatty acids may also inhibit clotting and improve blood vessel function. The American Heart Association recommends four servings of fish per week but doesn't endorse supplements because of too few data on the subject.
May 2002 Update