Health Supplements in Older Adults: Do they work? Are they safe?

By Ms Tan Keng Teng, Principal Pharmacist (Clinical), Tan Tock Seng Hospital 

Health supplements are used to supplement diet or maintain healthy functioning of the human body1. They include vitamins, minerals, amino acids or substances extracted from animal or botanical sources. However, health supplements should not be intended as a replacement for a balanced diet.

 

Do they work?

Health supplements are effective in treating vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, epidemiological studies in the United States have found difficulty proving the beneficial effects of health supplements in improving health, due to the association that people who take health supplements are likely to be more health conscious and make better dietary and lifestyle choices. Evidence regarding the effectiveness of health supplements from current literature is conflicting and consumers would be wise to check with their health care provider before starting on a health supplement. Health supplements should not be used to replace medications prescribed for the specific medical conditions that the individual may have.

Are they safe?

In Singapore, health supplements are currently not subjected to premarketing approvals but dealers are obligated to ensure that the products sold are safe for consumption and adhere to safety and quality standards. For example, the product should not contain other active ingredients except what is stated on the label, and should not exceed pre-defined limits for heavy metals and microbial contamination.

Health supplements also have the potential to interact with prescribed medication to produce adverse effects. For example, ginkgo biloba can interact with medications which inhibit platelet aggregation and increase risk of bleeding. In addition to potential drug-drug interactions, health supplements can also have side effects and consumers should understand and monitor for side effects when they start on a new health supplement. It is important for physicians and other health care professionals to check with their patients if they are consuming any health supplements to monitor for any potential drug interactions and/or side effects.


Reference: Health Sciences Authority (HSA) Regulatory Guidance Health Supplements Guidelines. Revised Feb 2015; Date accessed: 12 October 2016