Seniors & Aging

Seniors often fall prey to fraudulent health products

Jeanne Freeman is a health education specialist and an associate professor of community health at Western Washington University.
Jeanne Freeman is a health education specialist and an associate professor of community health at Western Washington University. For The Bellingham Herald

If the product that promises to help you sleep, erase your wrinkles, and ease your arthritis pain sounds too good to be true — it probably is.

Americans spend $25 billion a year on fraudulent health products, and 60 percent of the victims are over the age of 60, says Jeanne Freeman, associate professor of community health and a certified health education specialist at Western Washington University.

“The makers of these products play on people’s fears,” she says. “Fears of things like getting older, of gaining weight, or of losing their hair.”

Oddly, the mere fact of taking a bogus health product can convince people that they’re on the mend because of it.

“The ‘placebo effect’ is very powerful, so people will often feel better when they use these products,” Freeman says. “But when the products are studied, there is nothing biologically that would result in the benefits they advertise.”

For example, she says, chondroitin cream is advertised to ease joint pain, but in reality it doesn’t absorb into the skin.

“People rub it into their knees and feel a bit better, but it’s actually because of the massage,” Freeman says.

Such products can also be harmful when combined with other medications. Also, they might include fillers like gluten or lactose, so it’s important that people tell their health-care provider about any product they are taking, Freeman says.

The Dietary Supplement Education Act of 1994 removed the federal Food and Drug Administration’s authority to approve supplements prior to hitting the market, so it can take several years for a problematic product to be reported, investigated and removed from store shelves. Some product makers take advantage of that time lag and disappear after 18 months, after making money off of naive consumers but before an investigation can begin.

“There is so much information out there, and no filter when it comes to the Internet,” says Freeman, whose research interests include the impact of social media on health-related decisions and behaviors. “The key thing to remember is that if it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is too good to be true.”

Linda Shindruk is a Whatcom County writer.

Warning signs of fraudulent health products

▪ The product claims to cure several different ailments.

▪ The ad claims that “research has shown …” but there is no way to see the research documentation.

▪ Product ingredients are “only available” in a remote part of the world, or may only be available for a limited time.

▪ The product offers a 100 percent money-back guarantee, but the conditions in the small print usually make it impossible to claim a refund.

The politics of dietary supplements

Click here to read an article about dietary supplements by New York Times columnist and Northwest writer Timothy Egan.