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Vitamins lack clear benefits, studies say

By Lauran Neergaard

AP Medical Writer

LAST UPDATED: 02:32 p.m. HST, Dec 17, 2013

WASHINGTON » There's more disappointing news about multivitamins: Two major studies found popping the pills didn't protect aging men's brains or help heart attack survivors.

Millions of Americans spend billions of dollars on vitamin combinations, presumably to boost their health and fill gaps in their diets. But while people who don't eat enough of certain nutrients may be urged to get them in pill form, the government doesn't recommend routine vitamin supplementation as a way to prevent chronic diseases.

The studies released Monday are the latest to test if multivitamins might go that extra step and concluded they don't.

"Evidence is sufficient to advise against routine supplementation," said a sharply worded editorial that accompanied Monday's findings in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

After all, most people who buy multivitamins and other supplements are generally healthy, said journal deputy editor Dr. Cynthia Mulrow. Even junk foods often are fortified with vitamins, while the main nutrition problem in the U.S. is too much fat and calories, she added.

But other researchers say the jury's still out, especially for the country's most commonly used dietary supplement — multivitamins that are taken by about a third of U.S. adults, and even more by people over the age of 50.

Indeed, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is deliberating whether vitamin supplements make any difference in the average person's risk of heart disease or cancer. In a draft proposal last month, the government advisory group said for standard multivitamins and certain other nutrients, there's not enough evidence to tell. (It did caution that two single supplements, beta-carotene and vitamin E, didn't work). A final decision is expected next year.

"For better or for worse, supplementation's not going to go away," said Dr. Howard Sesso of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He helps leads a large multivitamin study that has had mixed results — suggesting small benefits for some health conditions but not others — and says more research is needed, especially among the less healthy.

Still, "there's no substitute for preaching a healthy diet and good behaviors" such as exercise, Sesso cautioned.

As scientists debate, here are some questions and answers to consider in the vitamin aisle:

Q: Why the new focus on multivitamins?

A: Multivitamins have grown more popular in recent years as research showed that taking high doses of single supplements could be risky, such as beta-carotene.

Multivitamins typically contain no more than 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of various nutrients. They're marketed as sort of a safety net for nutrition gaps; the industry's Council for Responsible Nutrition says they're taken largely for general wellness.

Q: What are the latest findings?

A: With Alzheimer's on the rise as the population ages, Harvard researchers wondered if long-term multivitamin use might help keep older brains agile. They examined a subset of nearly 6,000 male doctors, age 65 or older, who were part of a larger study. The men were given either multivitamins or dummy pills, without knowing which they were taking.

After a decade of pill use, the vitamin-takers fared no better on memory or other cognitive tests, Sesso's team reported Monday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Q: Did that Harvard study find any other benefit from multivitamins?

A: The results of the Physicians Health Study II have been mixed. Overall it enrolled about 15,000 health male doctors age 50 and older, and the vitamin-takers had a slightly lower risk of cancer — 8 percent. Diet and exercise are more protective. They also had a similarly lower risk of developing cataracts, common to aging eyes. But the vitamins had no effect the risk for heart disease or another eye condition, Sesso said.

Q: Might vitamins have a different effect on people who already have heart disease?

A: As part of a broader treatment study, a separate research team asked that question. They examined 1,700 heart attack survivors, mostly men, who were given either a special multivitamin containing higher-than-usual doses of 28 ingredients or dummy pills. But the vitamins didn't reduce the chances of another heart attack, other cardiovascular problems, or death.

Q: What about women?

A: Research involving postmenopausal women a few years ago also concluded multivitamins didn't prevent cancer or heart disease. But it wasn't nearly as rigorous a study as Monday's research, relying on women to recall what vitamins they used.

Q: What's the safety advice for multivitamin users?

A: The preventive services task force cited no safety issues with standard multivitamins. But specialists say to always tell your doctor what over-the-counter supplements you use. Some vitamins interact with some medications, and Sesso said anyone worried about nutrition should be discussing their diet with their doctor anyway.

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I have always believed your body will tell you what it wants you to eat to gain the needed nutrients to maintain the body's intake levels of vitamins, protiens, carbs.....The same is true for people trying to lose weighgt-a good diet and exercise along with healthy helping of love and positive attitude is all a person needs to live right. Throw away the pills whether diet or vitamins, eat right by getting a variety of food groups and enjoy life.
on December 17,2013 | 06:55AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
The only problem with your advice is that if what your body desires is what it needs, then you would be giving a free pass to those who crave high fat and high sugar content foods. I myself crave a nice juicy burger with bacon and cheese but I know that eating a high fat diet will result in a health disaster. Yes, the body sometimes craves nutrients such as certain minerals due to a deficiency. But most of the cravings are not necessarily in the best interest of our bodies. Further, when we say a "good diet" we enter a very vague area for most people. Many will say a diet rich in vegetables is one that is a "good diet". Maybe a "balanced diet" containing a lot of fruits and vegetables, some lean protein (not necessarily always from meat) and some carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread might be more understandable. Most of all, we tend to avoid exercise. That means just walking instead of taking the bus or the car for everything that is a couple of blocks away.
on December 17,2013 | 10:19AM
cojef wrote:
Quit taking multivitamins about 5 years ago and will quit the omega 3-6-9, as soon as we finish the 4 with 120 pills each bottles. Hate to see it go to waste, although recent disclosures by prominent doctors that it does not contribute any benefits. Guess, we are too bull-headed about it. What galls me is that the disclosure was made after we received our 6 bottle shipment. Talk about a killjoy?
on December 17,2013 | 08:27AM
likewise wrote:
The only supplement my physician recommended to me was calcium. Her view, get your vitamins via a good healthy diet and nutritious food. Supplements just give you expensive urine.
on December 17,2013 | 08:30AM
XlllX wrote:
South Dakota has a lot of obese people, maybe they need more vitamins.
on December 17,2013 | 09:09AM
lowtone123 wrote:
I don't take much stock inhealth studies. One day a study says one thing, the next day another study says the opposite thing. I listen to my doctor, my brain and my body.
on December 17,2013 | 09:57AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
Very informative article that everyone should read.
on December 17,2013 | 10:11AM
awahana wrote:
The purple pill is all you need.
on December 17,2013 | 10:30AM
RichardCory wrote:
But I hate grape flavor.
on December 17,2013 | 05:36PM
sjean wrote:
Gotta love the ad for super multi-greens next to the posts.
on December 17,2013 | 10:39AM
tigerwarrior wrote:
I'll continue to take my whole-food vitamins and binge on organic food--just in case they're wrong--as they sometimes are.
on December 17,2013 | 05:13PM
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