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9/21/2001

Antiaging Products May Harm Seniors, GAO Says

Donna Young

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released a report this month alerting consumers, pharmacists, and physicians that dietary supplements marketed as antiaging therapies may pose a potential harm to senior citizens.

Specifically, some antiaging products may be risky for seniors who have underlying diseases or health conditions. In addition, the report said, some dietary supplements could have adverse interactions with medications when taken concurrently.

GAO said that four out of 10 seniors have reported using botanical dietary supplements. Surveys have found that many older Americans use supplements to maintain overall health, increase energy, improve memory, prevent and treat serious illness, and attempt to slow the aging process, according to the report.

Some of the botanical products widely used by seniors are evening primrose oil, Ginkgo biloba, ginseng, kava, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and valerian, the report said. Other supplements used by seniors include chondroitin, coenzyme Q10, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), glucosamine, melatonin, omega-3 essential fatty acids, shark cartilage, and soy proteins.

The report said that, although some studies found evidence of the effectiveness of St. John’s wort in the treatment of mild to moderately severe depression, the substance has been associated with dangerous interactions with prescription drugs.

According to GAO, contraindications have been identified for several supplements. For instance, ginseng is not recommended for people with hypoglycemia, and kava may worsen the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Saw palmetto is contraindicated for people with breast cancer, and valerian should not be used by those with kidney or liver disease without first consulting a physician.

Evening primrose oil, garlic, Ginkgo biloba, ginseng, glucosamine, and St. John’s wort magnify the effect of anticoagulant drugs, such as warfarin, according to the report.

GAO also warned that commercial and scientific studies of selected dietary supplements repeatedly found that contaminants may be present and that the amount of the active ingredient present does not always match the amount listed on the product’s labeling.