New Study Suggests that Older Women May Not Benefit from Nutritional Supplements

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I’m notoriously bad about remembering to take nutritional supplements on a regular basis. That’s because I’ve rarely been sick (knock on wood) and that up until the past decade or so, I didn’t hear much push for taking nutritional supplements. And that may turn out to be a good thing since there’s been a lot of media coverage about a new study that found that some vitamin and mineral supplements are associated with a small increase in the risk of death in older women. So what’s behind the news? And should you consider tossing all of your nutritional supplements?

    The study, which was recently published in Archives of Internal Medicine, analyzed the data of 38,772 older women who were part of the Iowa Women’s Health Study to self-report their use of supplements at specific intervals over a period of two decades. The mean ago of the women was 61 years in 1986, which was when the study started.  When the study started, two-thirds of the participants took a vitamin or supplement. That percentage increased to 85% by 2004. The women were not asked whether they were taking these supplements in order to fight specific diseases or to boost their overall health.

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    The researchers found that the use of multivitamins, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6 and copper were associated with the slight risk of higher mortality. The strongest association was for supplemental iron. However, use of calcium was associated with decreased risk of death. Dr. Jaakko Mursu, who was the lead researcher and works with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and the University of Eastern Finland, told ABC News, “I would conclude that supplements are not protective against chronic disease. In some cases they may be harmful, especially if used for a long time.”

    The Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Hobson wrote that experts believe that more research is necessary to determine how nutrients affect cells at different stages. Additionally, foods are complex nutritional wonders. “Almonds, for example, may have vitamin E, but they also contain a host of other substances and chemicals that likely work together to bring any beneficial effects. Or, eating nuts may take the place of other foods that may have harmful effects,” Hobson reported.

    Several news sources noted that supplements can be helpful for people who have some sort of nutritional deficiency. For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that vegetarian women of childbearing age may need supplemental iron. In addition, women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant should take folic acid and may also need vitamin D. Calcium supplements also have been found to slow the progress of osteoporosis.

    So what should you do? First of all, consult with your doctor. Secondly, take a look at your diet. “A better investment would be eating more fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Rita Redberg, editor of the Archives of Internal Medicine told NPR. According to, older women should refocus their diets. In their 40s and 50s, women should eat five to seven servings of a wide variety of colored vegetables, which will provide nutrients as well as fiber (which will help prevent constipation). Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are important to add to your diet due to their omega-3 oils. This addition will help with skin issues (crinkling, wrinkles) and also act as an anti-inflammatory (thus, helping to decrease the risk of heart disease and possibly Alzheimer’s disease). Calcium and vitamin D are also important. You need to get at least 1,500 milligrams of calcium daily. You should also start limiting sodas and coffee, which can cause you to lose calcium.

  • So try to focus less on your nutritional supplements and more on what you eat on a daily basis. I’ll look forward to seeing you in the produce aisles!

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Published On: October 12, 2011