Vitamin pills 'increase risk of early death'
By Kate Devlin, Medical Correspondent telegraph
Last Updated: 12:01am
Popular vitamin supplements taken by millions of people in the hope of improving their health may do no good and could increase the risk of a premature death, researchers report today.
They warn healthy people who take antioxidant supplements, including vitamins A and E, to try to keep diseases such as cancer at bay that they are interfering with their natural body defences and may be increasing their risk of an early death by up to 16 per cent.
Researchers at Copenhagen University carried out a review of 67 studies on 230,000 healthy people and found "no convincing evidence" that any of the antioxidants helped to prolong life expectancy. But some "increased mortality".
About 12 million Britons supplement their diets with vitamins and the industry is worth £330 million. But little research has been done on the long-term health implications.
The Department of Health said yesterday that people should try to get the vitamins they need by eating a balanced diet and advised care in taking large doses of supplements.
A spokesman said: "There is a need to exercise caution in the use of high doses of purified supplements of vitamins, including antioxidant vitamins, and minerals. Their impact on long-term health may not have been fully established and they cannot be assumed to be without risk.
Antioxidants, including vitamins A, E, C and beta-carotene and selenium, are said to mop up compounds, called free radicals, which cause disease. It is this action that researchers believe may cause problems with the defence system.
The Danish research, released by the influential Cochrane Library, applied only to synthetic supplements and not to vitamins that occur naturally in vegetables and fruit.
It found that vitamin A supplements increased the risk of death in healthy people by 16 per cent. Taking beta-carotene was linked to a 7 per cent increased risk, while regular users of vitamin E supplements increased the risk of an early death by four per cent.
Although the review found no significant detrimental effect caused by vitamin C, it found no evidence that it helped ward off disease. Millions take it in the hope of avoiding a common cold.
Goran Bjelakovic, who led the review, said: "We could find no evidence to support taking antioxidant supplements to reduce the risk of dying earlier in healthy people or patients with various diseases.
"If anything, people in trial groups given the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E showed increased rates of mortality."
But Patrick Holford, a nutritionist who has formulated supplements for the company Biocare, said: "Antioxidants are not meant to be magic bullets and should not be expected to undo a lifetime of unhealthy habits.
"When used properly, in combination with a healthy diet full of fruit and vegetables, getting plenty of exercise and not smoking, antioxidant supplements can play an important role in maintaining and promoting overall health."
A spokesman for the Health Supplements Information Service said: "People should get all the vitamins and minerals they need from their diet, but for the millions who are not able to do that, vitamins can be a useful supplement and they should not stop taking them."
However, Catherine Collins, of the British Dietetic Association, said: "This study is deeply worrying and shows that there should be more regulation for vitamins and minerals.
"The public can buy vitamins as easily as sweets. They should be treated in the same way as paracetamol with maximum limits on the dosage."