BACKGROUND: Women aged >or= 65 years are high utilizers of prescription and over-the-counter medications, and many of these women are also taking dietary supplements. Dietary supplement use by older women is a concern because of possible side effects and drug-supplement interactions. The primary aim of this study was to provide a comprehensive picture of dietary supplement use among older women in a large health plan in Northern California, USA, to raise awareness among health care providers and pharmacists about the need for implementing structural and educational interventions to minimize adverse consequences of self-directed supplement use. A secondary aim was to raise awareness about how the focus on use of herbals and megavitamins that has occurred in most surveys of complementary and alternative therapy use results in a significant underestimate of the proportion of older women who are using all types of dietary supplements for the same purposes. METHODS: We used data about use of different vitamin/mineral (VM) supplements and nonvitamin, nonmineral (NVNM) supplements, including herbals, from a 1999 general health survey mailed to a random sample of adult members of a large Northern California health plan to estimate prevalence of and characteristics associated with supplement use among women aged 65-84 (n = 3,109). RESULTS: Based on weighted data, 84% had in the past 12 months used >1 dietary supplement, 82% a VM, 59% a supplement other than just multivitamin or calcium, 32% an NVNM, and 25% an herbal. Compared to white, nonHispanic women, African-Americans and Latinas were significantly less likely to use VM and NVNM supplements and Asian/Pacific Islanders were less likely to use NVNM supplements. Higher education was strongly associated with use of an NVNM supplement. Prevalence did not differ by number of prescription medications taken. Among white, nonHispanic women, multiple logistic regression models showed that college education, good health, belief that health practices have at least a moderate effect on health, and having arthritis or depression significantly increased likelihood of NVNM use, while having diabetes decreased likelihood. CONCLUSIONS: An extremely high proportion of older women are using dietary supplements other than multivitamins and calcium, many in combination with multiple prescription medications. Increased resources should be devoted to helping clinicians, pharmacists, supplement vendors, and consumers become more aware of the safety, effectiveness, and potential side effects of dietary supplements.