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posted: 10/17/2011 6:00 AM

Experts remain split on safety, benefits of vitamins

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Do vitamins increase the risk of death? According to one recent medical study, the conclusion may be yes. However, does the data really support the conclusions or are the results being exaggerated? In my opinion, the conclusions of the study are a real stretch based on the structure of the study itself.

This study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is not a double blind, placebo controlled, prospective study. It is part of a larger study and concluded that elderly women who took vitamins had a slightly increased risk of death compared with those who did not. In contrast, this study also suggested that calcium, as a supplement, was associated with a 3.8 percent reduced risk of death.

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The data was part of the very large Iowa Women's Health Study consisting of 41,836 postmenopausal women, ages 55 to 69 who filled out questionnaires in 1987, 1997 and 2004. The questionnaires covered many aspects of health including vitamin use. Although these studies are essential because they provide a large amount of data, correlation does not prove causation. This means that self-reported data is notoriously unreliable, and since there are no controls, the results are far from conclusive. These types of studies are usually the foundation for further, well-designed and controlled studies.

There are a number of factors that can affect the skew, the statistics and the conclusions. It may be possible that those women who have more illnesses and are at a greater risk of death simply use more. Medication use also is important. Even safe over-the-counter pain medications can increase the risk (small but real) of serious hospitalization and death. In addition, physical activity, diet and habits like smoking and alcohol abuse all can affect the outcome.

Among health care professionals, whether vitamins are helpful, harmful or a waste of money is very controversial. However there are, literally, thousands of well-designed, prospective studies worldwide demonstrating the benefits of vitamins for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, Alzheimer's disease, etc. It is important that accurate information is available to the general public and health care community.

Fortunately, there are now a number of credible resources for accurate information about vitamin use. One of these sources is the Natural Health Research Institute (I hold an unpaid position on the scientific advisory board). The institute is described as "an independent, nonprofit organization that supports science-based research on natural health and wellness." Its goal is to inform people about the benefits of good food, supplements (if needed) and healthy lifestyles.

The institute is having its sixth annual scientific symposium in Schaumburg on Friday, Oct. 28. The symposium is open to the public and the speakers are internationally recognized experts in the area of vitamins and health. The topic is "Measuring the efficacy, safety and cost savings of dietary supplements." More information can be found on their website: naturalhealthresearch.org/nhri.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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