Many seniors take vitamin and mineral supplements to boost their health. Instead, a new report from the FDA says that some of these pills and capsules are putting seniors in danger—not because of what is in the supplements but because of the how the pills/capsules are made. Here’s why…

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked at about 4,000 adverse food-safety events that involved trouble swallowing dietary supplements reported over a recent 10-year period.

Key findings:

  • 86% of the reported swallowing problems were caused by choking.
  • More than three-quarters of people who reported choking were age 65 or older…and women were five times more likely to report choking than men.
  • 14% of the choking events were “serious”—including three deaths.
  • 90% of the supplements that caused choking were multivitamin or calcium supplements.
  • Average size of the pills/capsules implicated in choking was just over 19 mm (about three-quarters of an inch) in length.

Hard to Swallow

Since swallowing is an ability we have from the moment of birth, we tend to take it for granted. But actually, the process of swallowing is a complex activity involving coordination of many muscles in the throat. As with the rest of the body’s muscles, throat muscles also weaken with age, which compromises swallowing ability. Women are typically more affected by age-related muscle loss than men.

The FDA has guidelines for generic pill and capsule size to lower the risk of choking. It recommends that generic pills/capsules be 17 mm (slightly more than half an inch) or under…with a maximum of no more than 22 mm (just under one inch). However, dietary supplements—including their size—are not FDA-regulated.

If you’re a senior who takes an over-the-counter supplement, especially a multivitamin or calcium supplement, the FDA and physicians advise that you be mindful of possible choking risk.They also recommend…

  • Not taking several pills at once…and avoiding extra-large pills or capsules.
  • Swallowing supplements with plenty of water or other fluid. 
  • If you do have to take a pill or capsule that’s on the larger side and is difficult for you to swallow, ask your doctor if the supplement comes in smaller sizes.
  • Asking your pharmacist for other options—such as cutting a pill into smaller pieces to swallow separately…or grinding up a pill or emptying a capsule into a drink or food…or if the supplement comes as a powder, chewable or liquid.