Many older adults are turning to complementary and integrative health approaches to promote health and well-being. Natural products, often sold as dietary supplements, are frequently used by many older people despite safety concerns or a lack of evidence to support their use. Although many people believe that natural products are safe, these products can contain pharmacologically active compounds and may interact with prescription medicines or have side effects and risks. Check out what the science says about natural products for these common aging-related conditions, and talk to your health care provider if you are considering taking a natural product. And for information about mind and body approaches for common aging-related conditions, be sure to check out these tips.
- Osteoarthritis. Findings from studies of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate—taken separately or together—suggest that they do not provide much, if any, meaningful improvement of pain or function for osteoarthritis (OA). Independent clinical practice guidelines published in 2012 by the American College of Rheumatology, and in 2010 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommend not using glucosamine or chondroitin for OA.
- Cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Although natural products containing fish oils or Ginkgo biloba have been widely marketed to improve memory and sharpen the mind, there is a lack of evidence to support the use of these products for the prevention of cognitive decline or dementia.
- Sleep problems. Current research suggests that melatonin (a hormone known to shift circadian rhythms) may be useful in treating several sleep disorders, such as jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder, and sleep problems related to shift work. Guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend the use of melatonin supplements to promote daytime sleep among night shift workers. The guidelines also recommend melatonin to reduce symptoms of jet lag and improve sleep following travel across multiple time zones.
- Menopausal symptoms. Many natural products, such as black cohosh, have been studied for their effects on menopausal symptoms, but there is little evidence that they are useful. While some herbs and botanicals are often found in over-the-counter formulas and combinations, many of these combination products have not been studied. It’s also important to know that because natural products used for menopausal symptoms can have side effects and can interact with other botanicals or supplements or with medications, research in this area is looking at safety as well as effectiveness.
- Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Although several small studies have suggested modest benefit of saw palmetto for treating symptoms of BPH, a large study evaluating high doses of saw palmetto found that saw palmetto was not more effective than placebo for treatment of urinary symptoms related to BPH.