Health A to Z

Women's Health: Vitamins are no magic bullets

Antioxidant supplements fail to fight off heart disease in women at high risk

Vitamin pills don’t always measure up to good overall nutrition and an active lifestyle, according to researchers who studied the effects of supplements in women at high risk for heart attacks.

The study involved more than 8,000 female health-care professionals over the age of 40 who had a history of heart disease or at least three cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity.

The women were randomly assigned to take inactive pills or various combinations of vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene. These nutrients are known as antioxidants because they lower levels of free radical molecules that are thought to increase the risk for various diseases.

Over the next 10 years, 1,450 women suffered a heart attack or stroke, had a procedure to improve blood flow to the heart, or died from heart disease. None of the antioxidants had any effect on the combined risk of these outcomes.

Among the women with a history of heart disease, however, vitamin E was associated with a slightly reduced risk of these outcomes. In addition, women who took vitamins C and E were found to have a 31 per cent lower risk of stroke compared with those who took inactive pills.

Study author Dr. JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says the stroke finding could be a fluke. “We caution that the findings may be due to chance, because we looked at a large number of subgroups and did multiple comparisons, so just by random sampling some of them will be positive.” However, she adds that the finding is of interest and merits additional research.

Manson says the findings show there are no magic bullets when it comes to improving one’s health. In fact, she cautions that when people believe a pill or supplement could solve serious health problems there’s a risk they will neglect other beneficial practices. “We really do have to focus our energies on trying to encourage the lifestyle modifications that have been established to lower risk.”