More than a third of Americans use them, making the multivitamin the nation’s favorite dietary supplement. And though the jury is still out on their actual health benefits, the results of a new study show a modest but significant reduction in the cancer rates of middle-aged and older men who took a multivitamin daily.
The Brigham and Women’s Hospital study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, followed over 14,000 male physicians over age 50 for an average of 11 years. The doctors who regularly took a multivitamin had an 8 percent lower risk of getting cancer compared with those who were randomly chosen to get placebos.
“In this large-scale randomized trial, a daily multivitamin supplement significantly but modestly reduced the risk of total cancer,” said lead author J. Michael Gaziano, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. in Boston. “Although the main reason to take multivitamins is to prevent nutritional deficiency, these data provide support for the potential use of multivitamin supplements in the prevention of cancer in middle-aged and older men.”
But the authors are quick to point out the results of the study are not conclusive. Citing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they wrote that “for the general, healthy population, there is no evidence to support a recommendation for the use of multivitamin/mineral supplements in the primary prevention of chronic disease.”
Dr. Ernest Hawk, vice president of cancer prevention at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, was also cautiously optimistic.
“It’s a very mild effect and personally I’m not sure it’s significant enough to recommend to anyone,” he told the Associated Press.
According to the study, taking multivitamins did not lead to fewer deaths from cancer. Another fact researchers say should be considered is the actual makeup of the study participants. The men in the study were all doctors; they tended to be white non-smokers, who ate little red meat, and consumed about four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
“These are very encouraging results, but women weren’t included in this study, nor were younger men, nor those from a range of ethnicities,” said Dr. Demetrius Albanes, a nutritional epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute. “It’s one trial,” he told the Boston Globe, “and we’ve seen many cases where one trial doesn’t always give the final answer.”
For years, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements have maintained that there’s insufficient evidence to recommend for or against a daily multivitamin.
In a statement, the American Cancer Society also appears to be unmoved by the study.
“This study is an important addition to the body of evidence the Society reviews in establishing its guidelines,” wrote Susan Gapstur, the organization’s vice president of epidemiology research. “Typically, we like to see these kinds of findings replicated by other studies, and in other populations.”
Based on the study alone, Gapstur said the American Cancer Society would not alter its recommendation that people get nutrients from a healthy diet, not supplements.
In contrast, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade group for the dietary supplement industry, is far more enthusiastic.
“This study reinforces the value of long-term consistent use of a daily multivitamin as a convenient and affordable insurance policy for good health,” said Duffy MacKay, CRN’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.
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