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Despite Concerns, Most Older Adults Use Vitamins, Supplements 

Less than half are confident the products won't clash with prescription meds, a poll finds

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Most older Americans take vitamins or dietary supplements, though few who use them have a nutritional deficiency. And many aren't sure these products mix well with their prescription medications, according to a Harris Poll survey of 2,001 adults for the American Osteopathic Association, which represents physicians and medical students.

The survey found that 82 percent of people ages 55 to 64, and 88 percent of those 65 and older, take vitamins or supplements . But only 23 percent of the 55-64 age group and 24 percent of 65-plus adults who use the products have received test results showing they have a nutritional deficiency, such as inadequate vitamin D, vitamin B12 or calcium.

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Only 45 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds and 49 percent of 65-plus adults who said they use vitamins and supplements feel confident that they won’t conflict with their prescription drugs. 

Mike Varshavski, a family physician with older patients, said the problem of polypharmacy — patients taking numerous medications, with possible harmful interactions — is now greater because of vitamins and supplements. 

“Because these supplements are viewed as natural and not strong, people feel safe that even if there’s an interaction, it may be a small one,” Varshavski said. In reality, he said, some products—such as those containing vitamin K, which can interfere with prescription anticoagulants — may pose serious risks. A 2015 study estimated that 23,000 people a year go to hospital emergency rooms for problems related to dietary supplements.

Forty-eight percent of vitamin and supplement users in the 55-64 group and 51 percent of 65-plus users incorrectly believe the products are regulated to be safe and effective, which is the standard for prescription drugs. 

Varshavski is concerned that some older adults are “self-diagnosing and self-treating” problems with vitamins and supplements instead of seeking medical treatment.

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