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Older Adults Are Targeted by Health Fraud

Remember the “snake oil salesman” of yesteryear? He would travel from town to town peddling “patent medicines” that he guaranteed would cure a wide range of ailments. Of course, those fancy bottles he sold from the back of his wagon usually contained nothing more than colored water and flavorings—or, later on during Prohibition, alcohol!

Today, the snake oil salesman has evolved into a multibillion-dollar health product industry. Instead of a traveling wagon, these companies sell from late-night cable TV infomercials, online ads and spam emails, and sometimes even at your local drugstore. They aren’t regulated by any government agency. A manufacturer can put anything in a bottle and make a claim on the label, spending very little on research but plenty on marketing.

Experts say these companies often target older consumers. Many older adults have money in the bank. Many are living with concerning health conditions, and are tempted by promises to slow down aging. Some seniors are less internet-savvy than younger consumers. And people with Alzheimer’s disease or another cognitive impairment are top targets for health fraud.

Some of these products are harmless, and we might enjoy using them—perhaps a fragrant oil, a soothing hand lotion, or a fruit-based health shake. However, many not only are useless, but they also might contain dangerous ingredients, or interact with prescription drugs we take. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) say these are some red flag claims to watch out for:

“Miracle cures.” People who have arthritis, diabetes, cancer or other debilitating or painful health conditions are understandably interested in anything that could improve their situation. But alarms should go off when you see claims such as “new discovery,” “scientific breakthrough” or “secret ingredient.” A true cure for a serious disease, or even an annoying minor health problem, would be widely reported through the media and prescribed by health professionals—not buried in print ads, TV infomercials or on a website.

“Health supplements.” Your doctor might recommend that you take certain vitamins and minerals that have been proven to be effective. But the vast majority of supplements are likely worthless and might even be unsafe. These products don’t undergo a review by the FDA. Under current law, the FDA might step in if a consumer is harmed by a substance—but experts acknowledge that another company might come along with the same product, making the same claims.

“All natural.” Many people are drawn to supplements, oils and other products that are made from plants and other herbal ingredients. But the word “natural” doesn’t ensure that a product is effective or safe. Some substances found in nature can be dangerous to consume. And the FDA warns that some companies use the word “natural” when a product is anything but! For example, an analysis of “herbal” products sold to treat erectile dysfunction revealed that many actually contain the same active ingredients as prescription drugs—but in dangerously large amounts.

“Lose weight fast.” Doctors say changing the amount and type of food we eat and getting more exercise are the best way for most people to lose weight. Medications might be prescribed for some patients. But consumers are bombarded with ads for nonprescription weight-loss medications, supplements, creams, wraps and patches. The sellers make fraudulent and misleading claims that their products can help people lose weight quickly, effortlessly and safely. In fact, these products only lighten your wallet, and some can be dangerous.

“Anti-aging.” There’s an old saying—“Don’t want to get old? Consider the alternative!” Many consumers nonetheless fall for pitches from unscrupulous marketers selling nonprescription medications, herbs, creams and services which they claim will reduce wrinkles, boost brain health, and even slow the aging process. “Products that claim to make you look 20 years younger instantly, for example, are a waste of money—and they’re promoted on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the way you look now,” said Colin Milner, founder of the International Council on Active Aging. “The companies that market them treat older adults as though they’re damaged goods, reinforcing the erroneous belief that aging equals illness and decline.” Our focus should be on healthy aging, not anti-aging.

Here are some sales techniques that should tip you off that a product is most likely worthless:
  • The seller claims that a single product can treat a wide variety of health conditions.
  • An ad says, “Buy now, supplies are limited.”
  • A friend sells you a product that makes health claims—and then tries to enlist you to sell the product as a “work from home opportunity.”
  • The ads include testimonials from people reporting amazing benefits (who are most likely actors).
  • A celebrity spokesperson—a film star, a politician, even a religious leader—makes the pitch.

That’s not to say all so-called “alternative” or “complementary” medicine is useless. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), which is one of the 27 U.S. National Institutes of Health, valid research backs up the effectiveness of certain supplements and practices.

How can you tell which products are worth your money? The best way is to ask your health care provider. Your doctor can tell you if a product has any health value or might be harmful, and can recommend alternative treatments to help you reach the same health goals. NCCIH experts report that few older patients discuss alternative products with their doctor. Maybe it never occurs to them to share the information, or they might hesitate because they fear their doctor will judge them. But remember: Your doctor trained for years to know what works and what doesn’t. Why not take advantage of that expertise?

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Right at Home offers in-home care to seniors and adults with disabilities who want to live independently. Most Right at Home offices are independently owned and operated, and directly employ and supervise all caregiving staff.
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