I'm a big fan of vitamins. And judging by the size of the vitamin and supplement industry—$20 billion in annual sales, a quarter of that in multivitamins—so are you. Pop one pill and you get a day’s worth of nutrients. What’s not to love?
Well, there is this: A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that taking multivitamins and other supplements may actually shorten your life. Uh-oh.
Researchers in the study collected information from nearly 40,000 women (but say the findings apply to men too) several times over 22 years. They asked about all sorts of health issues, including vitamin and supplement use. After reconciling this data with health and death records, researchers identified seven supplements that actually seem to hasten death: vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, and your innocent-looking multivitamin. The increase in mortality rate ranged from 2.2 percent (multivitamins) to a whopping 18 percent (copper).
All of which begs the question: Should you quit taking your vitamins? Well, I’m not going to quit—and you shouldn’t either. Here’s why:
This means that researchers followed a group of people over time, but didn’t test the supplement group against a placebo group. Although researchers did carefully control for factors such as age, diabetes, physical activity, high blood pressure, and a few dietary habits, even they say the findings should be interpreted with caution. There may be factors they didn’t account for that skewed the results, admits lead author Jaakko Mursu, Ph.D., of the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Minnesota.
Average age: 62. That’s not quite a representative sample of the population. Plus, it’s been well established that iron supplements increase the risk of heart disease in post-menapausal women (which is why there’s no iron in Centrum Silver and other multi’s formulated for older adults). And copper—which can be toxic in large amounts—is prevalent in many natural foods, such as vegetables and nuts, so few people need large doses of supplementation.
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A study in Psychological Science earlier this year found that the perceived benefits of multivitamins may cause many people to cheat on their diets and workout routines. “Taking dietary supplements increases perceived invulnerability,” Wen-Bin Chiou, Ph.D., a professor at National Sun Yat-Sen University and author of the study, told Men's Health. In other words: It’s not the vitamins that are harmful; it’s the life choices people make while taking vitamins. So, you know, don’t do that.
“In my mind, there's no question that low levels of vitamin D are associated with heart disease and many other issues including obesity and type 2 diabetes. I recommend it routinely and have for years,” says Robert Tozzi, M.D., chief of pediatric cardiology at the Hackensack University Medical Center. While your body produces vitamin D from sun exposure—and you consume it in certain foods—roughly one-third of Americans don’t have sufficient levels. (Mursu’s study found that vitamin D supplementation had no effect on total mortality.)
The American Heart Association recommends eating three servings of omega 3–rich fish per week, but how many of us meet that lofty goal? That’s why many experts recommend supplements. Studies show that men with the highest omega-3 levels, whether it's from natural sources or supplements, have the lowest risk of dying of heart disease. In fact, when researchers in Italy gave 2,800 heart-attack survivors 1 g fish oil a day, they found that the supplement reduced their risk of dying of heart disease by 30 percent and of sudden cardiac death by 45 percent, compared with those who didn't supplement their diets. That's pretty compelling evidence.