Vitamin Supplements May Do More Harm for the Elderly

Older people have a difficult time eating a balanced diet due to several reasons: ill-fitting dentures, early satiety, medical problems like gastric ulcers, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes or just being a plain picky-eater.


In order to assure themselves that they’re getting all the vitamins and minerals they need despite the inadequate diet, they take in supplements.

In the October 10, 2011 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Jaakko Mursu of the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland says otherwise.

The data was gathered from the Iowa Women’s Health Study where 38,772 women from ages 55 to 69 were enrolled. The study began from 1986 and was completed in 2008.

The women were interviewed in 1986, 1997 and 2004 with regards to the type of vitamin supplement they were taking.

By December 31, 2008, a total of 15,594 participants had died or 40% of the initial enrollees. The study reported that the use of vitamin supplement had a 2.4% increased absolute risk for death.

From the demographic data, it was noted that women who took in supplements had a higher educational background, were more physically active and were more likely to use hormonal replacement therapy.

The data also revealed that taking Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Iron, Magnesium and Zinc produced a 3-6% higher risk of death. The presence of Copper in the supplement increased the risk of mortality even more, by as much as 18% compared to non-users.

Calcium was the only supplement that proved to be beneficial with an absolute risk reduction of 3.8%

Dr. Mursu said “Although we cannot rule out benefits of supplements, such as improved quality of life, our study raises a concern regarding their long-term safety.”

The authors may be right in saying that long-term use of any drug or supplement may cause more harm than good. But don’t throw out your bottle of vitamins just yet.

The study failed to report the health status of the women upon joining the survey. There was also no mention of other medical problems or other drugs that the participants were taking during the period of enrollment

In fact, these same group of subjects, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, was used in a research published in 1999 by R. M. Bostick, entitled “Relation of Calcium, Vitamin D and Dairy Food Intake to Ischemic Heart Disease Mortality among Postmenopausal Women.” This study reported 387 deaths due to Ischemic Heart Disease from 1986-1994.

Therefore, we cannot totally put the blame on supplement intake as the aggravating cause of death. The women could have other medical problems that directly caused their demise.

It is safe to say that supplements may still benefit patients as long as their other medical conditions are monitored and treated adequately by a physician.

Dr. Mursu’s study is merely warning us not to be complacent or over-dependent on supplements thinking that they are the “cure-all” drug. A thorough physical examination and laboratory check is still necessary every year to ensure a long and healthy life.

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