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A Guide to Supplements for Seniors

Cholesterol-Lowering Supplements for Seniors

Diet and exercise are the most effective tools to lowering your cholesterol, but these supplements may also lend you a helping hand.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid

Also known as CLA, this supplemental fatty acid has been extensively researched in animals, where it shows promise as a way to lower cholesterol, fight cancer, and even reduce body fat. In laboratory studies, CLA uses its antioxidant powers to slow the growth of cancerous cells in the skin, breast, colon, and lung.

Some animal studies even suggest it reduces body fat and increases muscle mass. But there's no proof so far that the same holds true for people. Two recent studies in humans had conflicting results.

Ironically, high-fat meats, such as ground beef and lamb, and full-fat dairy products -- foods generally viewed as dietary bad guys -- are the richest natural dietary sources of CLA. The body doesn't make it; CLA comes only from the foods you eat.

Does that mean you should eat more high-fat meat and dairy products? Hardly. There's too much confirmed bad news about high-fat foods. What about CLA supplements? Despite the fact that CLA supplements claim to make you slimmer and healthier, there's no solid evidence, at least in humans, that this is true.

Gamma Linolenic Acid

This appears to be an exception to the recommendation to limit omega-6 fats in your diet. Also referred to as GLA, it is found in plant seed oils, such as borage and primrose oil. Animal studies show GLA can relieve both acute and chronic inflammation, such as that from arthritis.

Human studies have found significant relief of the pain and inflammation of arthritis with doses of about 3 grams a day. Because it is not an approved treatment for arthritis, most experts are cautious about recommending it as a regular, long-term treatment for the condition.

Prebiotics and Probiotics

Friendly bacteria is not a contradiction in terms. At least not when it comes to your colon. Your intestinal tract is home to hundreds of different kinds of bacteria, some good, some bad. Bad bacteria, such as Staphylococci, can cause diarrhea and infection. Good, or friendly, bacteria, such as Lactobacilli, inhibit the growth of bad bacteria, improve digestion and nutrient absorption, lower cholesterol, and enhance immune function.

As a result, health experts are beginning to realize there is a connection between maintaining intestinal health and maintaining overall health. It's a fight to the finish going on in your intestinal tract -- a battle of good against bad. If the number of beneficial bacteria drop, the intestinal environment becomes more attractive to pathogens. The toxins produced by pathogens can irritate the lining of the intestinal tract and gain entry into the bloodstream.

How to shift the bacterial balance in the right direction? Through the use of prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients, such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS for short), a type of carbohydrate, which are a favorite food for the good bacteria and promote their growth and activity. If you eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains, you get some from your diet.

If not, FOS come in capsule or powder form. Considerable animal research has shown that regular consumption of FOS has wide-ranging health benefits. The typical dose is about 1 teaspoon a day of powder. FOS are widely used in Japan as a health-promoting food ingredient in more than 500 food products. You may be most familiar with probiotics, which are products or supplements that contain live, active, beneficial bacterial cultures.

The most common, of course, is yogurt. Many animal studies and some population studies have found that eating yogurt can help fight infection, control diarrhea, decrease food allergies, and possibly reduce the risk of cancer. Though no recommended dose has ever been established for probiotics, it is known that you must eat yogurt regularly to maintain the population of good bacteria in the intestinal tract and have a beneficial effect.

Red Yeast Rice

For thousands of years, this has been a Chinese remedy. Now it is a main ingredient in several over-the-counter supplements in this country. And, according to the latest research, it's an effective, low-risk way to lower cholesterol -- significantly better than a cholesterol-lowering diet could do on its own. It also costs a fraction of what similar prescription drugs cost.

Red yeast rice just happens to contain a cholesterol-lowering compound that's chemically identical to lovastatin, one of the most popular prescription drugs for lowering cholesterol. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration had banned the import of red yeast powder, saying it was a drug, not a supplement.

But a federal court judge overturned the FDA's ban, saying it was a supplement after all. It's best used by people who have borderline cholesterol levels (200 to 240), with no other known risk factors for heart disease. If your cholesterol is higher than that, you should consult your doctor first.

To learn more about senior health, check out the links on the next page.


Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or coauthor of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is the nutrition editor of Muscle & Fitness Hers, a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition, and a contributing writer for

Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., F.A.C.N., C.N.S. is a professor of nutrition science and policy and is the director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory in the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. In addition to publishing more than 180 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, he has served on the Surgeon General's Workshop on Health Promotion and Aging, the Sports Medicine Committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Board of the American Aging Association, the WHO/FAO Consultation on Preparation and Use of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, the Food Advisory Committee of the FDA, and the WHO Expert Consultation on the Development of Nutrition Guidelines for the Elderly. He serves on the editorial board of several scientific journals, including the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the Journal of Nutrition for the Elderly, the Journal of Medicinal Food, and Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.