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Trash the Vitamins?

by | February 8th, 2012

Trash the Vitamins?

Dietary supplements are widely used by older adults, even though the effectiveness of these supplements in preventing illness is questionable. But can dietary supplements actually promote a higher risk for death? A new study suggests that the answer is YES for some of the most common supplements. This Best Evidence Review describes the findings of this study and puts these results in context.


Vitamins and dietary supplements play an important role in the health and healthcare of many adults, and the business of supplements constitutes a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. Based on the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 40% of men and 50% of women older than 60 years of age consume at least 1 vitamin or mineral supplement.[1] A national survey by the US Food and Drug Administration found that 73% of US adults were found to use dietary supplements in 2002, providing annual sale costs in 2005 of over $20 billion.[2,3]

The widespread use of dietary supplements is not supported by practice guidelines. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) states that there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of vitamins A, C, E, or multivitamins with folic acid or antioxidants.[4] Specifically, the USPSTF cites concerns regarding the balance of benefits vs harms of these supplements. The American Medical Association recommends supplements specifically for seniors who have generalized decreased food intake, while the American Dietetic Association advises low-dose multivitamin and mineral supplements depending on individualized dietary assessment.[5] The American Heart Association emphasizes healthy eating patterns rather than supplementation with specific nutrients.[6]

These recommendations against the routine use of supplements are grounded in good evidence. A Cochrane intervention review of 77 randomized controlled trials with 232,550 participants found no evidence to recommend antioxidant supplementation for primary or secondary prevention of mortality.[7] Moreover, there is the possibility of harm related to the use of some supplements. For example, the Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Trial demonstrated that beta-carotene supplements increased the risk for lung cancer among male smokers.

This recent study concluded the following:

  • Nearly half of older adults routinely use dietary supplements, with higher rates of use among women compared with men.
  • The routine use of many dietary supplements is discouraged in practice guidelines.
  • The use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper was associated with a higher risk for mortality among older women in the current study.
  • Conversely, calcium supplements were associated with a lower risk for mortality.

This study suggests physicians should be a trusted resource for patients interested in dietary supplements. They can help balance self-treatment practices that might be effective against those that appear harmful or excessive. “The findings of the current study should be sobering for the most ardent supporters of supplements, and patients need to understand the potential risks inherent in the treatment choices they make.” Charles P. Vega, MD

Click here for original article.

J. Kyle Mathews, MD

Plano OB Gyn Associates

Plano Urogynecology Associates


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Dr. J. Kyle Mathews is an expert in the field of Urogynecology, minimally invasive laparoscopic and robotic surgery, and reconstructive gynecologic surgery. Dr. Mathews is board certified and a Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as the American College of Surgeons. With over two decades of experience, Dr. Mathews is one of the most experienced surgeons in north Texas.

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