Q: Can a daily vitamin E supplement help to keep you well? I’ve just come back from a cruise where most passengers were American and many seemed to be taking a daily capsule of E, including two retired doctors we met. Do they know something we don’t?
A: Vitamin E – and other antioxidants such as C and A – were once hailed as a way of protecting against degenerative diseases such as stroke, heart attack and cancer. However, they fell out of favour recently amid concerns that they don’t offer a useful protective effect, and may even be harmful.
A number of studies have shown they don’t live up to the hype, including the UK-based Heart Protection Study, which suggested, at best, that commonly taken antioxidants are useless – at least in the short to medium term. Twenty thousand volunteers were divided into two groups. Half were given a daily antioxidant mix of high-dose vitamins C, E and beta-carotene (converted to vit A in the liver), while the other half were given placebos.
Five years later, there were no significant differences between the rates of cancer, stroke and heart disease in the two groups (the overall death rate and the number of heart attacks was actually fractionally higher in the vitamin-takers).
Studies such as this don’t mean some people won’t benefit, some of the time, but until we get clearer evidence of who they might help, there is only one supplement I’d advocate for older people in the absence of a proven deficiency, and that is vitamin D.
Sub-optimal levels of D are associated with problems ranging from osteoporosis and diabetes to cancer of the prostate and colon. This doesn’t mean supplementation protects against these problems – this has yet to be proved – however, routine supplementation is still recommended for many people in the UK. Visit nhs.uk (search ‘vitamin D’) to find out whether that includes you.
It almost certainly will.
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