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    Seniors are frequent targets of health fraud.

     

    Seniors are frequent targets of health fraud.
    How vulnerable are you?

    Consumer health fraud is a multibillion dollar business in America, and it is often targeted at senior citizens. The consequences can be serious, ranging from significant financial loss to the failure to seek legitimate medical treatment.


    "Seniors are a vulnerable population for health fraud, because they often experience physical illness or discomfort and are highly motivated to improve their health," says Tamara Nelson, MS, RD, nutritionist at the Center on Aging at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, Colorado USA. "They are often bombarded with letters, advertisements, flyers, phone calls and other communications and it can be difficult to sort out what is accurate health information and what is not."


    However, she suggests some ways to tell the difference:


    Sensational claims are one giveaway. "Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is," says Nelson. Be wary, for example, of advertisements that claim that a remedy or pill reverses heart disease, cures cancer, or causes an extraordinary boost of energy.


    Therapies that are so new that physicians don't know about them, or so old that the medical community has overlooked them, should also raise red flags, she says. These kinds of "ancient health secret" ads are frequently supported by personal testimonials that appeal to your emotions, but don't necessarily prove that the product works.


    Similarly, "more is better" types of claims with vitamins and minerals should be avoided. "Megadoses of vitamins and minerals, or more than 10 times their recommended daily allowance, are nothing more than supplement abuse that could lead to health problems," she says.


    Too much vitamin C, for example, can lead to chronic stomach ulcers and too much calcium can cause constipation and interfere with iron absorption. Most seniors need only one daily supplement that provides 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, she says. The supplement should complement a good diet, which provides adequate carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber and fluid.


    When choosing a supplement, beware of the claim that vitamins made from natural or organic ingredients are better than vitamins that are synthetically manufactured.


    "If we know the chemical composition of a vitamin and can create it synthetically, your body doesn't know the difference.," says Nelson.


    Finally, a last type of fraud is anything that refers to a prior personal interaction, such as a handwritten note or a telephone call from someone who refers to past conversations. Nelson encourages senors to be very skeptical if they don't quite remember the interaction.


    The only thing seniors should believe is information that has been scientifically proven, in repeated studies by legitimate researchers, to be effective, she says.


    "Research that was conducted by a university or another well- known organization can be trusted," says Nelson. "The best studies involve a large group of people in which neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was getting the experimental product and who was getting a placebo."


    For more information about diet, vitamins or minerals, or an advertised health claim, call the American Dietetic Association hotline at 1- 800- 366- 1655. To report suspected health fraud, call the Food and Drug Administration at (301) 443- 4166 or go to:
    Food and Drug Administration

    The preceding information provided as a public service, compliments of:

    University of Colorado Health Sciences Center
    4200 East Ninth Avenue
    Denver, Colorado 80262 USA
    (303) 270-5571

    Editor's note:The Medical Reporter is very concerned about health fraud perpetrated against seniors and other vulnerable groups of individuals. According to an article in FDA Consumer magazine, "Americans spend upwards of $20 billion each year on unproven medical treatments" and "sixty percent of those who try untested therapies are over 65 and spend an estimated $10 billion on them." (Source: Kristine Napier, "Unproven Medical Treatments Lure Elderly," FDA Consumer, March 1994, p. 33)


    The Medical Reporter will take an active stand in advocating for patients and healthcare consumers in general, in an effort to help prevent instances of health fraud (including deceptive advertising), medical fraud, insurance fraud and misrepresentation, and similar problems. Remember that as a healthcare consumer, you DO have rights and recourse.


    These rights include knowing the risks and benefits of any treatments or therapies which you are considering, as well as the credentials, qualifications, educational training and business affiliations of all physicians and other healthcare providers proposing or recommending treatments to you.


    Regarding vitamin supplementation for seniors...
    There is a growing body of scientific evidence, supported by numerous medical studies, that antioxidants such as vitamins E, C, and beta carotene and phytochemicals (nutrients such as sulforaphane and lycopene derived from broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and other food sources) may play an important role in preventing disease and in minimizing or reversing the effects of aging. It is always best to check with your primary care physician, however, before beginning any course of vitamin or nutritional supplementation, including diet aids, to prevent possible adverse drug interactions or other undesirable effects.


    In some cases, vitamins taken to excess can be dangerous. And, as the preceding article makes clear, it is wise to heed the words "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) when hearing claims made for products or services --particularly those untested by the medical establishment and unknown to your doctor. There have been many cases reported in the medical literature, for example, of people becoming seriously ill from taking certain herbs or herbal products. This is certainly not to say that all herbal remedies are bad, or harmful; it is merely to point out that one should exercise caution and check with one's physician before taking, or ingesting, any unknown substance. What may be harmless, or even beneficial, to one person may hurt or even kill another. When in doubt, be sure to use your primary care physician as your advocate and guide.

     






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