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Health Scare: Increased Death Rates Linked to Supplement Use

But...read this before you toss 'em.

| October 10th, 2011
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Increased Death Rates Linked to Supplement Use

A new report came out today showing that taking multivitamin and mineral supplements is associated with increased mortality (death) rates.

In other words, you might see some news outlets with sensationalist headlines along the lines of "Supplements Will Kill You."

The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, pulled data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study for 38,772 women with an average age of 61.6 years. Supplement use was checked in 1986, 1997 and 2004, and the percentage of women taking at least one supplement increased by just over 22 percent between 1986 and 2004.

Use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper, were all associated with increased risk of death in the study population, with iron and copper being the worst offenders.

MORE: Your Guide to Supplements

Sounds scary, but don't go ditching your multivitamin just yet.

"The women in the study were very unusual in that they ate more than twice as many fruits and vegetables than the national average," explains YouDoc Michael Roizen, M.D. "A multivitamin is an insurance policy against an inadequate diet, and mortality rates as they relate to the average population can't be accurately tested against a diet enriched with two times the national average."

The study is an "association study," which means we're missing some key information here. Maybe the women with higher mortality started upping their supplement intake because they started feeling bad and they were trying to reverse disease. We don't know if they were (or were not) taking other supplements that are key for long, quality life. "They didn't study DHA or fish oil, which have been shown to protect against a number of things, or lutein, which is been shown to protect against macular [eye] degeneration. These have been proven useful in randomized trials as a supplement for women over 50." In other words, supplements may not cause higher mortality, even though the two are associated.

MORE: How to Get Your Omega-3s

Also, only copper and iron had effects greater than 5 percent in hazard ratios (a measure of risk of disease or death), and both still had less than 10 percent. "We [doctors] usually only place emphasis on association studies that have at least a 40 percent decrease or 2.4 times increase in hazard ratios," continues Roizen.

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