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Can Supplements Increase a Woman’s Risk of Dying?

Study: Multivitamins, Iron, and Folic Acid Supplements May Increase Older Women’s Risk of Dying

Too Much Iron Dangerous

Not so fast, says Duffy MacKay, ND, the vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing the dietary supplement industry.

He takes issue with the new study and its findings. “The authors strongly overstated the potential for harm, while understating the benefits. The notion that the use of some supplements increases your risk for mortality is not substantiated by this data,” MacKay tells WebMD.

“Eat a healthy diet, fill in the gaps with supplements, and talk to your doctor about figuring it out,” he says.

One thing is clear from this study: Supplement users do seem to be healthier in general, he says. “A study that looks at the women who survived would be interesting.”

The iron issue seen in the study is a real one, MacKay says.

Many of the women in this study were taking iron at doses that far exceed any recommendations, he says. Too much iron is not recommended for anyone and increases the risk of several diseases, including liver and heart disease.

Joel Danisi, MD, is the clinical director of the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida. He agrees with MacKay regarding the iron issue.

“Iron seems to be the worst offender,” he says. “Check with your doctor to see if you are iron-deficient before considering iron supplements.”

Less Is More

The bottom line for Susan Fisher, PhD, is this:“A lot of vitamin supplements may not be protective against death, so more is not better.” She is the professor and chair of community and preventive medicine at University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

While the women in the study were presumed to be healthy, their supplement use may have actually been the tip-off that their health was changing. “Many people consider visiting the vitamin store because they are feeling tired and this may be the first sign that health is beginning to fail,” she says.

Supplements do have a role in treating nutritional deficiencies.“If you have a deficiency, taking dietary supplements probably will be helpful in preventing any outcomes or conditions related to this deficiency,” Fisher tells WebMD.

For example, “If you have low calcium, take supplements because they will help build bones and decrease your fracture risk.”

Don’t Stop Taking Your Multivitamin Yet

The next step is for researchers to determine how much of any given nutrient is too much and why, Miriam Pappo, MS, RD, says in an email. She is the director of the department of clinical nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.

“Getting our nutritional needs through food is of course the ultimate goal, she says. Still, “few can say they meet the micronutrient nutritional guidelines of 5-9 servings of fruits/vegetables daily, which is why many take a multivitamin, and the American Medical Association recommends it for our fast-paced society.”

Don’t stop taking yours because of this study, Pappo tells WebMD.


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