Beware of Your Supplements

Dietary supplements are a $23 billion business. That’s a lot of pills and powders, folks. Do you take any? Are they doing you any good? Worse, are they doing harm? I got sucked into taking supplements for several years before the sobering reports started flowing in. I decided to do my own research to separate the facts from the hearsay.

What I took

For about 3 years, I’ve been taking a fish oil supplement (1 pill); for at least two years, I was taking glucosamine and chondroitin (1 pill) and a general “women’s supplement” with calcium (1 pill). Then for about a year, I had taken vitamin D (2 pills–more on this later). So, 5 pills every day for a year (or more).

Why I did it

I had taken glucosamine and chondroitin off and on for a long time. I had heard somewhere at some time that you should take it for healthy bones. It was never actually recommended by a doctor, but when listed on any medications sheet, no doctor ever flagged it as a concern or questioned it. The women’s supplement, however, was mentioned by my doctor several years ago (before all the studies had been done), as a “good idea as women get older.” I was in my mid 40s at the time. I bought into it and rushed out to get some. Keep in mind that I had no symptoms or deficiency noted by the doctor. I have since learned that calcium supplementation is needed for the aged because old women (not someone in their 40s or 50s with a proper diet) are no longer able to absorb enough calcium.

As for the vitamin D, I took this at the doctor’s specific recommendation following a stress fracture to a bone in my foot. I had a bone density test done after the fracture occurred to get a baseline. My doctor told me then that my vitamin D levels could be a bit higher and to take 3000 IU of vitamin D. However, from what I found, you have a 2000 IU option and a 5000 IU option. So I purchased 2000 IU vitamin D pills and took 2 of them each morning ( a total of 4000 IU instead of the 3000 IU recommended). I had no idea at the time, of course, that this was a bad idea. Megadoses of vitamin D have been shown to cause serious problems, especially if you have other medical issues. Thankfully, I did not.

One of the biggest failings I found from my medical professional (and indeed due to my own ignorance) was to not ask HOW LONG. How long should I take this recommended supplement? Don’t make this same mistake. As it turned out, I was only on the too-high dose of vitamin D for a year. My bone healed completely within a couple months of the fracture and I was able to return to my normal, active lifestyle. A year later, I had experienced no further issues. That was when I stopped taking vitamin D.

I was mostly just lucky. Excluding the multi-vitamin, I never bought into a lot of the hype that most people have succumbed to when they choose to take vitamins. There are some that can be quite harmful in high doses, especially Vitamins C, A and betacarotene, E, B6, and multi-vitamins.

How to Move Forward

The general opinion of experts is that you should use supplements ONLY if your healthcare professional has recommended them due to a health-related reason. And you should definitely ask how long you will be required to take the medicine.

Several years ago, I was prescribed a specific dosage of Omega-3 fatty acids through fish oil pills. There was a medical reason for this and I continue to take 1 daily omega-3 fish oil to this day as well as eating a lot of fish. You see, my mother developed what is called “wet” macular degeneration in her early 80s–the worst kind you can get. Her vision deteriorated rapidly and she is now legally blind. As soon as she was diagnosed, I went to my optometrist for my routine annual exam. When I told her of my mother’s diagnosis, she prescribed the fish oil as an ongoing requirement to hopefully prevent the same occurrence in me.

As it turns out, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is the only supplement that every article on the subject agrees is acceptable for both eye and heart health. Obviously, as with all vitamins, your goal should be to get the necessary nutrients from food first. Omega-3 fatty acids are no exception. The American Heart Association recommends at least 2 servings of fatty fish per week (a serving is 3.5 ounces cooked–never fried).

Fatty fish include salmon, mackerel (avoid king mackerel, however, due to high levels of mercury), herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna. The AHA also offers some tasty recipes (at the bottom of the article) to help you get started on the right path.

Final Thoughts

As the author of one article I researched recommended, do yourself a favor and save your money by not buying unnecessary, potentially harmful supplements. Take only what your doctor recommends IF you have a specific deficiency and only for the period stated. Even better, spend that money on good, healthy, nutritious food that may eliminate you ever needing supplementation.

For Further Reading

Information for this article came from many resources. Among them, these were some of the best and most informative:

The American Heart Association offers it scientific position on supplements, which is short but worth your time.

Forbes offers its Top Six Vitamins You Should Not Take.

The most in-depth and comprehensive information I found is from this outstanding opinion piece in the New York Times.

Aging Parents

One of the hardest things to deal with as we get older is watching our parents age. I’m in an interesting position in this regard. You see, my parents are roughly the age of most of my peers’ grandparents. My folks had me, their only natural-born child, late in life after trying to get pregnant for 14 years. My mother was 41 and my father was 45 when I was born.

The advantage of this age difference was quite apparent growing up. I had the “cool” parents. Everyone thought I was “so lucky” that my parents would volunteer to take a huge group of kids in the motorhome for a weekend of camping out in tents in the California mountains. All of my peers parents used to marvel to mine about their stamina (or lack of sanity) in the ability to stomach 15 teens nonstop for an entire weekend.

What was lost on my friends was that they were still MY PARENTS. But I have to admit, after hearing the stories of what other kids’ parents put them through (the lack of trust; watching and monitoring their every move; calling to check up that they were where they claimed to be, etc.), I did feel fortunate. Keep in mind that this was long before computers, cell phones, FaceBook, GPS tracking, et al. If a parent wanted to know for certain that you were at a friend’s house, they had to call the friend’s parents to verify it. How mortifying!

My parents didn’t stop trusting me (and vise versa) until I was 19, so my youth and high school years were a dream compared to everyone else’s. Of course, it also helped that I was a pretty honest kid. But still, my parents had liberal rules that no other parent would have dreamed of back then, and certainly not today. For example, if we were going to drink, it was allowed at home but not at a party. Alcohol was never taboo at our house, so we never felt the need to go out and binge drink on a weekend. If we wanted a (small) glass of wine or beer with dinner when our folks were having one, we did. Simple. My folks had lived in northern Europe for many years and had seen how responsible parents there taught their children to respect social drinking so that binges didn’t become an issue for teens. It worked for us as well.

They set up simple rules about curfew, too. As long as we never abused it and got home as agreed, they were respectful of our need to be and act young. I’ll never forget, however, the time Horrible Sibling stayed out too late with a boyfriend. She was met at the door. I was often grateful I wasn’t her. Of course, when I made my break, it was spectacular and dramatic (but I was “of age” then, so it was quite a bit different). It took years to get past when my mother broke my trust in her. Such is growing up, I suppose. Eventually, as you become an adult, you find a middle ground in the relationship with your parents. I’m sure you’ve found this balance as well.

I had one of those dads who could fix anything. He would spend the weekend tuning cars or repairing appliances, or tinkering and whatnot, as needed. He was the handiest person I knew. My mom always had a big garden and could preserve what she grew by canning it (although we lived in California and never really had much of an off-season for growing). She was a great seamstress and made her clothes and ours when we were young.

But regardless of all of their good points and failings, parents get older. There is nothing to prepare you for the realization that, at some point, they are suddenly no longer the same people you grew up with. The decline, if you are lucky, is slow and gradual. My dad was always hard of hearing from flying bombers in World War II and the rest of his Air Force career, but he had always been too proud to use hearing aids. When we finally convinced him to try hearing aids, that should have been our first clue. He actually decided after all these years that he might want to hear what the rest of the family had to say!

When dad got “up there” in age enough that his reaction time was slowing down, it was initially a painless transition to have Mom take over the driving. They had downsized to just one car when they retired. They had alternated driving duties until Mom just kept offering to drive and Dad just kept letting her. There was never a formal discussion. It was rather organic.

Then about four years after she had taken over all the driving duties consistently, Mom started having vision issues. It started out as shadows, then blank spots, in her vision, then it became a very rapid progression of macular degeneration until she was legally and almost totally blind. The progression took only a couple of years.

That was when we knew we had to act. My husband and I took them to look at a retirement residence that also had assisted as well as convalescent facilities on site. Our rationale was that they could move once and be done. It was in a town about an hour and a half away from where my husband and I live. It would have been close enough but not too close for all of us. At the time, they lived nearly 4 hours away by car. There would have been lots of activities for them to enjoy, transportation to and from stores, events, and doctor’s appointments, and it was still close enough that their friends could have visited and we could have seen them most weekends, if they wanted.

Instead, they chose to move from Texas back to California to a small town in an area that did not offer any shuttle service. Worse still, then in his late 80s, my father had started driving again. He drove again because my mother no longer could. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world while they still lived in a place with no more that 10,000 people spread over 30 miles in a very rural part of the state. It was quite another issue when they moved to California, where even a “small town” has people living on top of each other. The freeways there are in horrible disrepair and are a hazard to drive on because the state has no money to repair them. But even the back roads are jammed with cars. My dad “only drives on the back roads” he tells me, like that’s a safe option.

One of the more difficult aspects of the move became the lack of a relationship with my sibling (we haven’t had a civil arrangement for over a decade). In most families, there is either a single child who has to guide the decisions for aging parents or a group of siblings who have to work together to come up with options and help guide the parents to the right choices as a collective. In dysfunctional relationships, working together isn’t an option and you end up often working against each other in trying to help your parents. More often that not, the aging parents end up getting the short end of the stick, like being convinced to move to an area where there is no assistance when needed, and having to drive yourself when you shouldn’t.

The Wrinklies
The Wrinklies still hold hands!

My mom will be 90 this year. My dad will turn 94 in a few months. After asking my dad repeatedly during our Thanksgiving visit to stop driving, he has finally agreed to stop “on his birthday.” The State of California requires frequent retesting for drivers over a certain age. If this is part of his reasoning for no longer driving, I’m happy. About 6 months ago, they moved to a retirement apartment complex that gives them 3 meals a day and housekeeping. There is also a driving service available.

So, as difficult as it is to work with my aging parents, I count myself lucky to still have them to deal with. They’ve led a long and relatively healthy life. One resource I would like to recommend to anyone facing aging parent issues is the excellent book, How to Talk to Your Senior Parents About Really Important Things. The title says it all.