Health Buzz: Dietary Supplements Linked to Increased Death Risk

Do vitamins and supplements work? Is it safe for kids to diet?

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Supplements May Increase Death Risk, But Link Not Proven

For years, we've been told a daily multivitamin serves as an "insurance policy" against a nutritionally deficient diet, but a new study muddies the water. Researchers who analyzed data from almost 39,000 women ages 55 to 69 found, on average, a 2.4 percent increased risk of death over 19 years for those who popped one of the following daily supplements: a multivitamin, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper. While iron appeared to be most strongly associated with an increased death risk, calcium was associated with a lowered risk, according to the study, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine. "I think the main message is researchers are finding very little benefit from these substances," the study's lead author Jaakko Murso, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told USA Today. The researchers encourage people to use supplements only when their doctors say so—not just for general prevention. But some experts aren't convinced. Miriam Pappo, director of clinical nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, told USA Today: "I wouldn't conclude from this that you stop taking a standard multivitamin. Very few people eat the required amount of fruits and vegetables a day. It's best to get your daily needs from food, but few people do that." Also: The study only shows a possible link between the supplements and death—it doesn't prove cause and effect.

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  • Vitamins and Supplements: Do They Work?

    Although the picture is mixed, the following is the current thinking—pro and con—on some key supplements that are both popular and well studied, U.S. News reported in 2008.

    1. Multivitamins. Millions of people pop a multivitamin every day with little evidence that it does any good. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force neither recommends nor advises against multivitamins (or other supplements) for preventing cancer or cardiovascular disease. Yet many researchers say a multivitamin has a role as "a very inexpensive insurance policy," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. There's no need for anything fancy that claims "heart health" or "prostate health" benefits, he says; an inexpensive, basic brand is fine. In early 2008, Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter editor Harvey Simon recommended against multivitamins. His chief worry was that on top of already fortified foods, the folate in a multi could spur cancer. But a study since then showed that cancer was not increased in women at risk for heart problems who were given folic acid supplements. Simon is now less concerned, at least with regard to breast cancer—prostate cancer still worries him.

    2. Calcium and vitamin D. Thumbs up. Extra calcium to protect bone health is safe and routinely prescribed for women who get too little from food. And consensus is building that Americans get too little vitamin D, which promotes calcium uptake. It is produced by sun-exposed skin and is difficult to get from unfortified foods—fatty fish are the only major food source. Studies suggest vitamin D also may help fend off cancer and ward off infections. Researchers are hungry for more evidence. "We really need to do the studies," says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. [Read more: Vitamins and Supplements: Do They Work?]

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    • Kids Who Diet: When Are They Too Young?

      Late last year, actress Ginnifer Goodwin, 32, made headlines after revealing she joined Weight Watchers when she was 9. Though critics said she was too young to diet, Goodwin defended herself and the program: "I went to weekly meetings, got counseling, and would exercise with my peers who were my size," she told People magazine. "It was the first time I saw a proper children's portion size, and it wasn't two burgers, it was one."