By: Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.
Nutrition science has finally caught up with common sense. In a landmark study from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, the researchers conclude that men who supplement with a multivitamin have a significantly lower risk for serious heart disease issues.
What makes this study different from others? In contrast to previous studies on relatively few subjects followed for a few years, the Harvard study was a long-term investigation on a large group of men (18,530 to be exact). The men averaged 40 years at the start of the study and were initially free of disease. There were no health differences between those who took multivitamins every day and those who didn’t. However, after more than 12 years, the men who had been supplementing for at least 20 years prior to the start of the study compared to the non-supplement group had a 44 percent lower risk of serious heart disease issues, such as nonfatal heart attacks and stroke, and deaths from cardiovascular disease. The men with a long-standing history of taking a multivitamin also were less likely to need open-heart surgery to replace clogged arteries (a condition called cardiac revascularization).
What makes this study so important? First, vitamins are essential nutrients. Our bodies can’t make them, yet they are critical to health, well being and even survival. Every national nutrition survey dating back decades has repeatedly found that the typical diet is sorely lacking in some of these nutrients. It makes sense to take a moderate-dose multivitamin to fill in the gaps on the days we don’t eat perfectly, thus providing our bodies with the building blocks they need to repair and maintain all body tissues, from head to toe.
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. It accounts for more than 17.3 million deaths each year and that number is expected to grow. It represents 31 percent of all deaths worldwide and claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined. By the year 2030, it is estimated (in U.S. dollar equivalents) that heart disease will cost the world $1,044 billion. The Harvard study suggests that a significant amount of this cost could be prevented by the simple act of taking a multivitamin.
Granted, it makes sense that taking a moderate-dose multivitamin supplement helps to support heart health, since many of the nutrients typically low in the diets worldwide are important for cardiovascular health. For example, the B vitamins – folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 – may help lower a compound called homocysteine in the blood that is associated with inflammation and disease risk. Poor intake of other nutrients, such as vitamins D and E, may be linked to numerous health conditions, including those associated with the heart. The Harvard study provides solid evidence that filling in these nutrient-deficient gaps by taking a multivitamin every day is an important piece of overall heart health.
It also is important to remember that there is a reason they are called “supplements.” Vitamin supplements are meant to complement healthy eating habits, not substitute for them. Even the most staunch supporters of supplements agree that no pill can replace a healthy diet and lifestyle. It is one factor in a pattern of living that is known and supported by thousands of well-designed studies to improve the quality of life and lower the need to take medications.