dietary supplement use

Approximately 50% of the US adult population, particularly older adults, use dietary supplements to enhance their health and wellbeing. A recent study examines the consequences of dietary supplement use on the health outcomes of older adults.

Financial, social, and health issues affecting older adults over 60 years old can lead to poor dietary habits, which often coincides with worsening health conditions. For this reason, many older adults use dietary supplements to help meet the recommended dietary intakes of various micronutrients. Yet this can present serious health issues. Supplementary nutrients can cause individuals to exceed the recommended Tolerable Upper Intake Levels, as many foods are already fortified with micronutrients. In addition, when taken in combination with prescription medications the resulting drug/supplement interactions can cause adverse health effects. It is for these reasons that dietary supplement use should be monitored; however, information regarding dietary supplement use is typically not shared with healthcare providers.

In a recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers looked at why dietary supplement use is so high in older US adults and whether particular subgroups were more likely to consume these. The researchers considered how various demographics (sex, age, race, education, income), lifestyle (physical activity, smoking status, alcohol consumption) and health factors (health and insurance status, prescription medications taken in the past 30 days) influenced dietary supplement use in a cohort of 3,469 adults aged 60 years and above. The frequency and motivation for using dietary supplements in a 30-day period were also assessed.

In a 30-day period, a high proportion (70%) of older adults used at least one supplement, mainly in the form of multivitamins or minerals, B or D vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Most (more than 79%) used these on a daily basis. A high proportion of individuals consumed dietary supplements concurrently with more than 3 prescription medicines (73%). In general, women were more likely to consume more dietary supplements than men.

Notably, it was individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds with poorer health and lifestyle habits who were less likely to use dietary supplements, even though they would gain the most benefit from using them. Those who were more likely to use supplements, individuals over 70 years old from non-Hispanic white and Asian backgrounds, tended to use the supplements to improve and maintain health rather than supplement their diets.

One of the main issues associated with dietary supplement use is that many individuals taking prescription medications do not seek guidance from their healthcare physicians. Given such a large proportion of individuals were found to consume prescription medications and supplements concurrently, the importance of having healthcare professionals monitor dietary supplement use cannot be overemphasized. Many individuals were also found to use supplements for health, and not dietary reasons. Therefore, they may overlook the fact that the foods they consume are also fortified with the very micronutrients they are taking in supplement form, putting themselves at risk of exceeding tolerable upper intake levels. In light of this, the researchers recommend a review of multivitamin and mineral formulations designed to supplement diets in older adults to avoid consuming nutrients in excessive amounts.

Written by Natasha Tetlow, PhD


Gahche JJ, Bailey RL, Potischman N, et al. Dietary supplement use was very high among older adults in the United States in 2011-2014. J Nutr. 2017. Available from: doi.10.3945/jn.117.255984.

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