Over 85% of middle-aged and older adults use some form of dietary supplement, with multivitamins being the most common, according to the 2021 Health and Retirement Study. Other popular supplements surveyed included vitamin D, fish oil, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin B12.
However, recent findings show that, overall, vitamin and mineral supplementation provides little to no benefit in preventing cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, and death.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) conducted an extensive review of the available research on multivitamin supplements, focusing specifically on possible preventive effects on CVD and cancer - the leading causes of death in this country.
There was a weak association between multivitamin use and a reduced incidence of cancer (mainly lung cancer), but results across studies were not consistent and didn't meet the USPSTF's standard for an official recommendation.
Reconsider these supplements
Researchers found that beta carotene is associated with an increased risk of CVD-related death and an increased likelihood of lung cancer in people that are high-risk. They also found that taking vitamin E offers no preventive benefits and is associated with a higher likelihood of hemorrhagic stroke. Thus, the USPSTF recommends against using these supplements.
Other results showed that vitamins A, C, and D, have no impact on all-cause mortality. Vitamin A was weakly associated with an increased risk of hip fractures, and vitamin C was linked to a higher risk of kidney stones.
Taking dietary supplements in general may be risky because they are not subject to rigorous review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Thus, you cannot know how much of an active ingredient is actually in a product.
Importance of a well-balanced diet
But let's take a step back. I must emphasize that when vitamins and minerals are consumed from naturally occurring food sources, there are measurable health benefits. Many studies show that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts reduces risk for CVD and cancer. This certainly makes sense given that, historically, humans have obtained nutrients from food and not multivitamins. In addition, vitamin- and mineral-rich foods have other beneficial compounds that cannot be found in over-the-counter supplements.
Generally speaking, a well-balanced diet is the best way to consume vital nutrients, but dietary supplements may be necessary for people with certain disease processes, chronic nutrient deficiencies, or limited access to nutritious foods. One supplement that may be of particular value to many is vitamin D, which is often lacking in a typical diet.
The best approach is to talk with your doctor about your current medication and supplement regime. One thing is for certain - eating a variety of colorful foods is more tasty and likely more impactful than simply taking a multivitamin.