April 24th, 2013 at 10:00 am
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Could supplements interact with elders’ medications?

by Dorian Martin

Dad takes a number of medications. There’s one for high blood pressure, another for his prostate and a diuretic. Plus, he’s on a pain patch due to his chronic lower back pain. And he also takes a baby aspirin daily, a multi-vitamin supplement and a fish oil capsule.

He’s always reading articles suggesting other supplements that might be beneficial. But should he take them? A new publication by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) may shed a little light on this area.

What exactly are supplements?

According to the AHRQ, dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs and other substances that are taken to provide additional vitamins and minerals beyond the food you consume. These supplements can come in pill form as well as in powders, drinks and bars. Supplements are sold in a number of locations, including pharmacies, grocery stores, health food stores, businesses that specifically sell vitamins, and through e-commerce sites on the Internet.

And marketers have made claims about the health benefits of supplements. For instance, some have been marketed specifically for cardiovascular issues, including vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, ginseng, garlic, ginger, ginkgo biloba, hawthorn, Echinacea, omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) and coenzyme Q10.

What are the effects of supplements?

AHRQ discusses the role of supplements for individuals taking heart or blood pressure medicines, with some interesting stats:

  • Persons with cardiovascular (CV) disease take an average of six drugs just for this condition (not counting other medications and supplements).
  • At least a third of adults with CV disease take a dietary supplement.

The AHRQ warns that supplements, which are readily available over the counter, are not meant to treat, prevent or cure conditions. Furthermore, these supplements do not have to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The report says there has not been enough research done on the effect of dietary supplements and their interaction with medications.

While supplements may have been used widely for specific conditions, they can cause side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, constipation, seizures, difficulty breathing in addition to possible swallowing, bleeding, kidney problems or liver problems. These side effects may not be listed on the product label. Supplements might also interfere with specific medications, causing them not to work as well or to result in additional side effects.

Supplemental questions to ask the doctor

So what should an elder do if he or she is considering taking a supplement? The AHRQ recommends that prior to adding a supplement, the elder should talk to his or her health care provider about the following:

  1. What are the benefits and risks of the supplement that is being considered?
  2. Could the dietary supplement interfere with any medications that are currently being taken or affect other health conditions that the elder has?
  3. How can the elder become an informed consumer and make sense of the claims made about supplements that are marketed in the media and on the Internet?
  4. What additional cost would the elder incur in taking dietary supplements along with prescribed medications?
  5. If the elder does take the supplement, what should the dosage be and how often should it be taken? And is there a specific duration for which the supplement should be taken?
  6. What side effects should the elder watch for?

Seniors and/or caregivers can work closely with health care professionals to help them make smart decisions about the supplements that are being taken. For more related ideas, you can take a look at my blog post on foods that could interact badly with elders’ medications.

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