Friday, October 14, 2011

Taking Vitamins May Lead To Earlier Death In Older Women

The study:

Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women, Archives of Internal Medicine, October 2011

They looked at intake of 15 supplements:
  • Multivitamins (Absolute Risk Increase, ARI, 2.4%)
  • Vitamin A
  • Beta-carotene
  • Vitamin B6 (ARI 4.1%)
  • Folic acid (ARI 5.9%)
  • B complex
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Iron (ARI 3.9%)
  • Calcium (Absolute Risk Reduction 3.8%)
  • Copper (ARI 18%)
  • Magnesium (ARI 3.6%)
  • Selenium
  • Zinc (ARI 3.0%)

The 8 with numbers after them were associated with either an increased risk of mortality (all but calcium) or a decreased risk (only calcium). The others ... this study found no significant impact.

I think the risk increases are small. What do you think? Just 2.4% for taking a multivitamin? Copper stands out though, doesn't it.

There were 5 dose options on the questionnaire for selected vitamins. The benefit for calcium was lost at its highest dose. Also for calcium, "no clear dose-response relationship was observed." "For vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as minerals selenium and zinc, no dose-response association was found." This was surprising to me. It looks like taking the vitamin at all, regardless of dose, was risky.

This was an epidemiological study, an analysis of data from participants in the large Iowa Women's Health Study. It's not appropriate to draw advice from this type of study, especially one with such weak associations. It's not a randomized controlled trial where they can specify doses, combinations, and types. You can however formulate or refine hypotheses. And the hypothesis that supplements fail to prevent chronic disease or even do harm is gaining momentum.

I would like to draw advice from it because, as you know, I'm biased. I think popping vitamins willy nilly is not a good idea. They often contain a pharmaceutical dose of an isolated chemical, along with fillers, binders, and other residuals like plastics and heavy metals that the food which contained the nutrient may not. For people who buy organic and local, who support Country of Origin labeling, why not apply this standard to supplements? I read that nearly all the vitamin C in the world, as well as glycerin used as filler, comes from China. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Assuming there really is an increased risk of death from consuming these vitamins, that risk, it must be said, doesn't apply to anyone but older (mean age: 61.1), white (99.2%) women who were postmenopausal (98.6%) who lived in the state of Iowa. I used to think, "Oh, sure it does." But you just can't say that since iron and folic acid supplements are harmful for a postmenopausal woman, they're equally so for a woman of childbearing age. And while multivitamins might not be good for older, white women in Iowa, they might be good for poor, urban teens who exist on cakes, chips, and soda, or for anyone with deficiency. People have different needs and tolerances.

The study's strengths:
  • It was big (over 38,000 women).
  • It collected data on supplement use three times over the time-course, not once at baseline which is what I normally see. As they said, "The use of repeated measures enabled evaluation of the consistency of the findings and decreased the risk that the exposure was misclassified."
  • It adjusted for a lot of possible confounding factors, including:

    Energy intake
    Education level
    Place of residence
    High blood pressure
    Body mass index
    Waist-to-hip ratio
    Hormone replacement therapy
    Physical activity
    Dietary factors: saturated fat, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and alcohol (there was a food questionnaire twice during the time-course)
In fact, the assumptions people make about people who take supplements ... that they're usually more educated and take better care of themselves, were applicable in this case. Supplement users in this study had a lower prevalence of diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking; had a lower BMI and waist-to-hip ratio; had a higher education level; were more active; ate fewer calories; ate more fruits and vegetables, etc. The analysis prior to adjustment for these factors showed taking supplements resulted in a lower risk of death compared to not taking them. Only after adjustment did the increased risk become apparent.

I think vitamins are helpful sometimes. For the well-fed, they can be a dross on the system.

Related: Comparison of this study's design to the Is Elevated Cholesterol Beneficial? study's design. This one is so much better.


caulfieldkid said...

Thanks for the break down, Bix.

The Copper thing is odd. I wonder what the story behind that is.

Angela and Melinda said...

Wow. Quite fascinating. I have read (but cannot remember the specifics) that vitamin E supplements can be quite harmful. To the heart, I think...(?). Docs seem really big on recommending vitamin D now, though, up to 2000 i.u.s (for anti-cancer effect).

Bix said...

I'm such a ping-pong ball with supplements. If I read too much about the risks, I stop taking them. If I read too much about deficiencies or marginal intakes, I start up again. I'll be honest, I do find getting enough fruits, vegs, and other items in, day in and day out, to be pretty darn time consuming.

Angela and Melinda said...

It is time-consuming! And prepping that stuff to put up for winter is even more so. This is how women used to live "back in the day." I begin to understand how the post-WW-II generation thought supermarkets were so wonderful!

Angela and Melinda said...

Just speculation, but I wonder if copper for supplements may sometimes be sourced from metals associated w/ nuclear materials...?

Charles R. said...

My mother has been taking vitamins since the 50s. D, E, C, minerals. She's 89, still working, and healthy as a horse.

Purely anecdotal evidence, for sure! But interesting. Everyone is different.

jfields said...

I am so confused with the vitamin issue. Everywhere I turn, so called experts are telling us why we need vitamins and supplements. I am looking for ward to really getting into all you have to say, here..J

Bix said...

Hi jfields. Forgive me for thinking that your comment sounds dismayingly similar to the anonymous spammy comments I do a "select all"/"delete" to in the morning when I sign on. The link you provide did little to assuage my suspicion.

Now that I have that out of the way ... You and me both! One day it's vitamins in; one day it's vitamins out. Who can keep track? And I'll tell you, I have a fetish for keeping track! As to those experts? I'll say this, I suspect the verity of any person or site that has something to sell - be it a pill, a book, a speaking engagement, or mere selfdom. Just smarmy huckstering, IMHO.