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Heart Disease Health Center

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The Truth About Vitamin E

It doesn't stave off heart disease, so who should take it?

WebMD Feature

March 27, 2000 (Petaluma, Calif.) -- When Alice Nadler heard the latest on vitamin E, she began to wonder if the experts really know what they're talking about. "I've been taking vitamin E for a couple of years, ever since my doctor recommended it as a way to lower my risk of heart disease," says the 40-year-old mother of two boys, who lives in Northern California. "So now they're saying it may not?"

Like Nadler, many Americans began popping vitamin E -- now one of the top-selling supplements nationwide -- a few years ago after studies suggested that it might protect against heart disease. In one study published in Lancet in 1996, men and women with cardiovascular disease who took the vitamin each day cut their risk of a second heart attack almost in half. In 1993, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published findings from a five-year Chinese study that followed nearly 30,000 adults. Those who took vitamin E supplements were 9% less likely to die during the study period.

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In the battle against atherosclerosis, the stakes remain high. Scientists have made exciting medical advances, but the disease persists as a leading cause of illness and death in the United States. This year alone, atherosclerosis will contribute to about 1.2 million heart attacks among Americans. “While we have very good therapies and tests to identify the disease and predict the risk, none of them is perfect,” says Stephen Nicholls, MBBS (bachelor of medicine/surgery), PhD, clinical director...

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Many researchers cautioned that more investigations were needed to confirm the power of E. But privately, some also admitted that they were taking a daily dose of the vitamin themselves, because the initial findings looked so good.

High Hopes Take a Tumble

Now comes news from a January 20, 2000 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that the golden pill may not live up to its promise. Canadian researchers tracked 2,545 women and 6,996 men aged 55 or older who took either vitamin E or a dummy pill. After five years, those taking the vitamin were no better off than those taking the dummy pill, suffering just as many heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from cardiovascular disease. The findings, ironically, are part of a study called HOPE, or the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation.

Unfortunately for Nadler and tens of thousands of others pinning their hopes on vitamin E, this isn't the only study to cast a shadow over the vitamin's reputation. An Italian report published last year in Lancet tested 300 international units (IUs) of vitamin E against a placebo in a group of 11,000 heart attack patients. While the number of overall deaths related to cardiovascular disease for those taking the vitamin was lower, the number of second heart attacks in the same group was actually slightly higher. Neither of these numbers was, however, statistically significant, making it difficult to draw a firm conclusion.

Says Nancy Ernst, PhD, nutrition director for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, "Based on these latest studies, many of us are beginning to think that the evidence just isn't there for vitamin E, at least when it comes to slowing the progress of cardiovascular disease."

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