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Dietary Supplements for Aging: A Fountain of Youth or Deluge of Dollars?

Jan 09, 2012

Written by Jessica Maillet, M.S., R.D., L.D.N, CPT-ACSM

For centuries, humans have sought out elixirs and potions to extend one’s youthfulness and longevity. In the last 100 years, medical advancements and access to health care have made living longer a reality.

In the 2005 U.S. Census, about 12 percent of the population was over age 65. This percentage is expected to double in the next 25 years as a result of the aging baby boomer population and longer life spans. As our population’s average age rises, the health concerns most prevalent in this age group will need to be addressed.

In addition to seeking medical treatment, eating a healthful diet and participating in regular physical activity, individuals look to dietary supplements as an addition, enhancement and even cure for a variety of age-related issues. A 2009 market report projected that by 2015, $291 billion dollars will be spent annually on anti-aging goods that range from skin care products, anti-aging technologies and dietary supplements.

Older adults require fewer total calories each day. This, in addition to dietary behaviors that tend to change with advancing age, makes it difficult for older adults to get the nutrients they need. Can dietary supplements enhance their diets?

First, it is best to get nutrients through food first and supplements second. Only about 3-4 percent of Americans meet the recommended nutrient goals for maintaining good health. Dietary supplements may have the potential to fill in some of those gaps, but there are also downfalls to this solution. One must proceed with care and caution to avoid toxicity of certain nutrients, false claims and unreliable products.

So how do popular dietary supplements stack up for conditions in which the older population is contending?

Bone Health and Osteoarthritis
The requirement for bone-strengthening vitamins and minerals increases when adults reach 50 years of age. Women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70 need 1,200 mg of calcium per day. For vitamin D, the recommendation also increases in men and women when they reach 70 years of age. In addition to nutrient-rich foods, a multivitamin with calcium and vitamin D may help reach these increased daily requirements.

Glucosamine and condroitin may have some effect on pain relief in moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis sufferers, but gentle exercise has also been shown to relieve pain caused by osteoarthritis.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Health
Maintaining a healthy gut is key in preventing gastrointestinal diseases like colon cancer and diverticular disease. High-fiber foods act like a broom, cleaning out your intestines and keeping them healthy. It is unclear whether fiber supplements have the same effect on GI health as the fiber found naturally in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. High-fiber diets require adequate amounts of fluid, so be sure to consume lots of fluid throughout the day. Probiotics may also help improve the health of the intestines, so supplement your diet with yogurt that includes active cultures.

Heart Health
Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids through fish or fish oils reduces risk of adverse outcomes from cardiovascular disease, like heart attack and cardiac death, and appears to have a dose-dependent effect on triglyceride levels.

Urinary Tract Health
Cranberry juice has been shown in some studies to prevent recurrent urinary tract infections. In a study published in Jan. 2011, however, researchers showed that cranberry juice might not actually be beneficial in preventing recurrent UTIs.

Skin Health
Antioxidants help protect cells from free radicals, the compounds that cause damage to cells. Alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E, may protect the skin from the damaging effects of free radicals like sun exposure. But, vitamin E can interfere with medications, and you should consult with your doctor before taking a supplement.

Memory and Memory-Related Diseases
Early studies showed that gingko leaf extract may improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but more recent studies are conflicting. At this time, it is unclear whether people can benefit from taking it.

Eye Health
A large study called the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) showed that certain antioxidants and zinc slow the progression of vision loss in people diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration. A follow-up study (AREDS2) is currently being conducted to research the effects of other dietary components.

Eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy fats, in conjunction with regular physical activity, will keep your body healthy and functioning well. A multivitamin and omega-3 supplement that meets no more than 100 percent of the age-appropriate recommended dietary allowance appears to fill the gaps if proper nutrition is not met, but it is still unclear how effective supplementation is in delivering nutrients when not consumed as food. Plus, some supplements may interfere with medications, so talk to your doctor before beginning any supplements.

View the full spring 2011 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page supported by Liberty Mutual online.

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