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Seniors' Health

Many seniors today are interested in natural medicine options. In this article, we discuss the issues of particular importance to this age group.

Natural Treatments Advocated for Seniors in General

Marginal nutritional deficiencies occur more often in older people than in most other age groups. For this reason, many seniors could benefit from enhancing nutrition. For information on this topic, see general nutritional support .

Some proponents of alternative medicine advocate products and treatments for the purpose of life extension. However, despite some promising results in test tube and other preliminary studies, there is no meaningful evidence that any alternative treatment can prolong life.

Numerous natural supplements have been promoted as fountains-of-youth for seniors, said to enhance life in multiple ways, including restoring youthful levels of energy, well-being, and mental function. However, there is again no evidence to indicate that any of these are effective. One such hormone, the widely hyped DHEA , has actually been fairly convincingly shown ineffective for this purpose. 1–7,14,15

A study published in 1990 created hopes that the human growth hormone (somatotropin or HGH) could increase strength and reverse many symptoms of aging in men. 8 However, subsequent evidence suggests that HGH is not useful for this purpose. 9 In any case, despite widespread marketing, HGH cannot be successfully used as an oral supplement because it is destroyed by stomach acid. (In the positive trial just described, it was administered intravenously.) Various amino acids and other supplements are marketed as HGH-releasers on the premise that they cause the body to increase HGH production. However, there is no reliable evidence that they actually do so to any meaningful extent; in any case, since HGH itself is no fountain-of-youth, this potential effect is of little significance.

Anabolic hormones have also failed to prove useful for enhancing strength in older people. The supplements creatine10–12 and HMB (hydroxymethyl butyrate)13 have shown a bit of promise for this purpose, but the evidence for benefit remains weak.

Note that there is one natural approach guaranteed to enhance strength in seniors: exercise. There is little doubt that increasing exercise is one of the most health-positive steps available for people of any age.

Finally, some evidence suggests that vitamin D supplements may improve balance (technically, reduce body sway) in frail seniors, and thereby help prevent falls. 16,17 However, not all studies have found benefits. 18

Safety Concerns

Many people implicitly believe that “natural” means “safe.” However, there is no scientific reason to believe that this should be the case. Many of today’s drugs are highly safe, while some herbs and supplements present real safety risks. For information any on issues relevant to any particular substance, see it's entry in the Herbs & Supplements .

Perhaps the biggest issue of concern is interactions between natural supplements and medications. For more information on possible interactions with medications you are taking, see the Drug Interactions section.

Revision Information

  • 1

    Wolf OT, Naumann E, Hellhammer DH, et al. Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone replacement in elderly men on event-related potentials, memory, and well-being. J Gerontol . 1998;53:M385–M390.

  • 2

    Wolf OT, Neumann O, Hellhammer DH, et al. Effects of a two-week physiological dehydroepiandrosterone substitution on cognitive performance and well-being in healthy elderly women and men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab . 1997;82:2363–2367.

  • 3

    Barnhart KT, Freeman E, Grisso JA, et al. The effect of dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation to symptomatic perimenopausal women on serum endocrine profiles, lipid parameters, and health-related quality of life. J Clin Endocrinol Metab . 1999;84:3896–3902.

  • 4

    Flynn MA, Weaver-Osterholtz D, Sharpe-Timms KL, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement in aging humans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab . 1999;84:1527–1533.

  • 5

    van Niekerk JK, Huppert FA, Herbert J. Salivary cortisol and DHEA: association with measures of cognition and well-being in normal older men, and effects of three months of DHEA supplementation. Psychoneuroendocrinology . 2001;26:591–612.

  • 6

    Kudielka BM, Hellhammer J, Hellhammer DH, et al. Sex differences in endocrine and psychological responses to psychosocial stress in healthy elderly subjects and the impact of a 2-week dehydroepiandrosterone treatment. J Clin Endocrinol Metab . 1998;83:1756–1761.

  • 7

    Arlt W, Callies F, Koehler I, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation in healthy men with an age-related decline of dehydroepiandrosterone secretion. J Clin Endocrinol Metab . 2001;86:4686–4692.

  • 8

    Rudman D, Feller AG, Nagraj HS, et al. Effects of human growth hormone in men over 60 years old. N Engl J Med . 1990;323:1–6.

  • 9

    Vance ML. Can growth hormone prevent aging? N Engl J Med . 2003;348:779–780.

  • 10

    Gotshalk LA, Volek JS, Staron RS, et al. Creatine supplementation improves muscular performance in older men. Med Sci Sports Exerc . 2002;34:537–543.

  • 11

    Wiroth JB, Bermon S, Andrei S, et al. Effects of oral creatine supplementation on maximal pedalling performance in older adults. Eur J Appl Physiol . 1439–6319. 2001;84:533–539.

  • 12

    Chrusch MJ, Chilibeck PD, Chad KE, et al. Creatine supplementation combined with resistance training in older men. Med Sci Sports Exerc . 0195–9131. 2001;33:2111–2117.

  • 13

    Vukovich MD, Stubbs NB, Bohlken RM. Body composition in 70-year-old adults responds to dietary beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate similarly to that of young adults. J Nutr . 2001;131:2049–2052.

  • 14

    Morales AJ, Haubrich RH, Hwang JY, et al. The effect of six months treatment with a 100 mg daily dose of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on circulating sex steroids, body composition and muscle strength in age-advanced men and women. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 1998;49:421–432.

  • 15

    Percheron G, Hogrel JY, Denot-Ledunois S, et al. Effect of 1-Year Oral Administration of Dehydroepiandrosterone to 60- to 80-Year-Old Individuals on Muscle Function and Cross-sectional Area: A Double-blind Placebo-Controlled Trial. Arch Intern Med . 2003;163:720 727.

  • 16

    Pfeifer M, Begerow B, Minne H, et al. Effects of a short-term vitamin D and calcium supplementation on body sway and secondary hyperparathyroidism in elderly women. J Bone Miner Res . 2000;15:1113 1118.

  • 17

    Janssen HC, Samson MM, Verhaar HJ. Vitamin D deficiency, muscle function, and falls in elderly people. Am J Clin Nutr . 2002;75:611 615.

  • 18

    Latham NK, Anderson CS, Lee A, et al. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Quadriceps Resistance Exercise and Vitamin D in Frail Older People: The Frailty Interventions Trial in Elderly Subjects (FITNESS). J Am Geriatr Soc . 2003;51:291 299.