Published in Pawtucket Times, December 19, 2014
Like millions of older baby boomers and seniors, some nights you just can’t get to sleep. It’s very late and you begin channel surfing. Does this sound familiar? Many TV viewers may ultimately find themselves, usually from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., watching an infomercial announcer pitch a health product or service, always claiming your health will improve, or that the aging process can be stopped or reversed, if you just purchase that bottle of dietary supplements, weight loss product, baldness remedies or sexual enhancement supplements, that home exercise machine, even register for a memory improvement course. The lists of products pitched on these paid commercials are endless.
The Vancouver, BC-based International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), a nonprofit group that supports professionals who develop wellness facilities, programs and services for adults over 50, calls on older consumers to beware of false promises and products with little health benefit. “Unfortunately, as people over 50 pursue this goal, many succumb to what one industry insider calls graywashing – claims that chip away at older adults’ retirement nest eggs with dubious promises of renewed youth and health,” says Colin Milner, CEO and founder of ICAA, who coined the term, graywashing.
There is No Fountain of Youth
According to Milner, there is no shortcut to improving your health. “Yet, people spend billions of dollars a year on products that claim there is,” he observes. “Many products also say they will turn back time,” he says, noting that the research shows these claims to be unsubstantiated.
Milner points to a statement by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health, which states: Despite claims about pills or treatments that lead to endless youth, no treatment has been proven to slow or reverse the aging process.” Be aware, warns Milner, as health fraud scams are abundant.
According to NIA’s Age Page, “Beware of Health Scams,” health product scams offer viable “solutions that appear to be quick and painless.”
As to dietary and weight loss supplements, American consumers spend a small fortune on potions claiming to help shed pounds, many sold over the counter. Be careful. Some supplements contain hidden illegal drugs and other chemicals that could cause serious harm.
The NIA fact sheet also claims that most dietary supplements are not fully tested by the Federal Drug Administration, a federal agency charged with protecting the public’s health. In 2014, FDA issued 63 Warning letters to companies that cited unapproved or unsubstantiated claims, tainted products or other health-fraud-related violations.
So, think carefully before you purchase that item. It is important to talk with your physician before you begin taking a supplement or using a health product remedy.
The NIA Fact Sheet notes that arthritis remedies, using Magnets, copper bracelets, chemicals, special diets and electronic devices, oftentimes unproven, can be quite expensive, potentially harmful, and unlikely to help. There is no cure for some forms of arthritis and rest, exercise, heat and some drugs, are the best ways to control the painful symptoms.
Health scams oftentimes target very sick people, especially those afflicted with cancer, in an attempt to trick people who are desperate for any remedy they can find. Buzz words to beware of include: “quick fix,” “secret ingredient” or “scientific breakthrough,” says NIA’s Fact Sheet.
Furthermore, weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding “supplements” are especially suspect, too, warns the NIA Fact Sheet. Some vitamins may help, but some supplements can harm people taking certain medicines or with some medical conditions. In particular, avoid those supplements claiming to shrink tumors, solve impotence or cure Alzheimer’s. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease at this time.
Milner urges older Americans not to be swayed by personal testimonials featuring “real people,” or “doctors,” often times played by actors who claim amazing cures. These testimonials are no substitute for real scientific studies, and can tip you off to a scam. In general, never purchase or start taking a medical treatment without first talking to your healthcare professional, particularly if you already take other prescribed drugs, recommends Milner.
Don’t Become a Victim of Scam
Be knowledgeable about the health care products you buy, suggests Milner, noting that the NIA Fact Sheet recommends that a person question what he or she sees or hears in ads or online. Always ask your physician, nurse, pharmacist or other healthcare provider about products you’re thinking of buying. Most important, avoid products that “promise a quick or painless cure.” Beware of claims that a health care product is made from a “special, secret or ancient formula” or it can “only be purchased from one company.”
Also, be wary if the infomercial claims the product can cure a wide variety of medical conditions or even successfully treats a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s or chronic arthritis. Put your credit card away and hang of the phone if you are required to make an advance payment or there is a very limited supply of the product.
“Science may be getting closer to a Fountain of Youth, says Milner, but, “we’re not there yet. “The pillars of healthy aging are simple. They include a sensible diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, meaningful relationships, and engagement in life,”
A Final Note for Rhode Island’s AG…
The Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General receives very few consumer complaints about deceptive health and beauty products, because most of these products are regulated on the federal level. The best advice they can offer consumers is to file a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB. Although these types of products are not regulated by individual states, and therefore the Attorney General has no jurisdiction over the sale of such products, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin reminds consumers that the age old tip applies when considering a purchase, “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
One way consumers can protect themselves, says Kilmartin, is to “ask for medical documentation backing up the claims and to ask and understand the refund policies before making a purchase. Another way to protect yourself is to pay by credit card, not debit card. Many credit card companies will allow you to dispute payment if the product or service doesn’t match up to its claims.”
For more information about the National Council on Active Aging go to http://www.icaa.cc/.
FDA s created a new website (www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm278980.htm) to help consumers protect themselves from fraudulent health products and schemes.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.