The elderly couple who bought vitamins at the grocery store

I recently stopped by our local grocery store after work to pick up a handful of items to bring home. With only four items in hand, I luckily found a short checkout line behind this lovely elderly couple who were almost done and ready to pay. As they smiled and made small talk with the cashier, I imagined a typical geriatric medical story about them.

They appeared in good health which I thought could be attributed to a healthy diet made up of some of the fruits and vegetables I just saw them purchase. Nevertheless, as Medicare patients I knew statistically, they were likely to have some chronic illnesses but hoped they were on very few generic prescription drugs. I also knew there was a good chance like many elderly patients, they were on a fixed income and struggling financially. As my mind started to wander even more, I was jarringly brought back into real world when I heard the cashier ring up this elderly couple for almost 250 dollars.

I normally would think much of the price tag for their groceries. But I was surprised because I could tell they didn’t have many bags in their shopping cart. As a dad of 3 rapidly growing kids, I have a good idea how much 250 can get you. I shrugged internally, and started to think about my evening ahead, waiting for this couple to exit the line. But once again my mind was snapped back to full attention by the cashier’s words.

“If you’d like to return the vitamins for any reason, please make sure to keep your receipt.”

As a nation, we spend over 30 billion dollars annually on vitamins and supplements. This is despite paltry, practically nil clinical data showing any benefit. The supplement industry keeps growing, and people’s bank accounts keep shrinking as they continue to misplace their health hopes in modern versions of snake oil.

I suddenly started to worry about this elderly couple. I kept hoping they were financially secure enough to spend hundreds of dollars on these supplements. I hoped they weren’t like some of my patients spending their hard-earned money in the hopes of having less pain, better libido and vitality, or preventing cancer and perhaps living longer. I crossed my fingers that they weren’t on real medications that would interact with their vitamins. I kept wondering as I often do, why can’t the FDA regulate this dangerous and expensive business? What could 30 billion dollars do for society instead of filling up medicine cabinets with placebo capsules?

More than anything I hoped that after a lifetime of ups and downs, these lovely people had some money left over in their budget to enjoy their golden years not by downing a fistful of vitamins daily, but over a glass of wine at a nice restaurant contemplating their next trip to visit their grandchildren.

Shabbir Hossain is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Shab’s Sanatorium.

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