Trash the Vitamins: Convince Your Patients

A Best Evidence Review

Charles P. Vega, MD; Veena Kulchaiyawat, DO


January 05, 2012

In This Article

Best Evidence Review of Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rates in Older Women

Mursu J, Robien K, Harnack LJ, Park K, Jacobs Jr DR. Dietary supplements and mortality rate in older women. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171:1625-1633.

Dietary supplements are widely used by older adults, even though the effectiveness of these supplements in preventing illness is questionable. But can dietary supplements actually promote a higher risk for death? A new study suggests that the answer is yes for some of the most common supplements. This Best Evidence Review describes the findings of this study and puts these results in context.


Vitamins and dietary supplements play an important role in the health and healthcare of many adults, and the business of supplements constitutes a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. Based on the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 40% of men and 50% of women older than 60 years of age consume at least 1 vitamin or mineral supplement.[1] A national survey by the US Food and Drug Administration found that 73% of US adults were found to use dietary supplements in 2002, providing annual sale costs in 2005 of over $20 billion.[2,3]

The widespread use of dietary supplements is not supported by practice guidelines. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) states that there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of vitamins A, C, E, or multivitamins with folic acid or antioxidants.[4] Specifically, the USPSTF cites concerns regarding the balance of benefits vs harms of these supplements. The American Medical Association recommends supplements specifically for seniors who have generalized decreased food intake, while the American Dietetic Association advises low-dose multivitamin and mineral supplements depending on individualized dietary assessment.[5] The American Heart Association emphasizes healthy eating patterns rather than supplementation with specific nutrients.[6]

These recommendations against the routine use of supplements are grounded in good evidence. A Cochrane intervention review of 77 randomized controlled trials with 232,550 participants found no evidence to recommend antioxidant supplementation for primary or secondary prevention of mortality.[7] Moreover, there is the possibility of harm related to the use of some supplements. For example, the Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Trial demonstrated that beta-carotene supplements increased the risk for lung cancer among male smokers.[8]


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.