Can Supplements Help You Live Longer?

Are Supplements The Fountain Of Youth?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


It is buyer beware in the supplement industry. I have discussed the dark side of the supplement industry in the first half of my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”

I called that section of my book “The Lies of the Charlatans.”  In it, I detailed many of the false claims that some manufacturers make for their supplements. There are claims that their supplements will…

  • Cure what ails you (Just fill in the disease of your choice. Some company will try to tell you they have the cure).
  • Make the pounds melt away.
  • Make you smarter.
  • Make you stronger.
  • Improve your sex life.

Can supplements help you live longer?

The list seems endless…Except for one! I don’t know of any supplement company claiming their supplements make you live longer. Nobody is claiming their supplements are the “Fountain of Youth.”

However, many of you have been asking me about headlines claiming that a recent study showed that supplements don’t extend lives. Could it be that the study generating the recent headlines was designed to disprove a claim nobody was making?

In this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I will analyze the study and answer two questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it important?

How Was The Study Done?

Every few years the National Center for Health Statistics (a division of the CDC) conducts a massive survey of factors affecting the health of the American population. This survey is called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The NHANES survey includes interviews and examinations of thousands of people across the country.

The interview includes dietary, health-related, demographic, and socioeconomic questions. The examination component includes laboratory tests plus medical, dental, and physiological measurements. The NHANES database is used for many studies such as this one.

The current study (F Chen et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, doi:10.7326/M18-2478, published April 9, 2019) used data from 30,899 US adults aged 20 years or more who participated in 6 cycles of the NHANES survey from 1999 to 2010. The dietary portion of the survey taken by these participants contained questions on the dietary supplements they had used in the 30 days prior to the survey.

The NHANES data were linked to the National Death Index mortality data so that the effect of nutrient intake and supplement use on mortality could be assessed. The median follow-up for the participants in the study was 6.1 years. During that time, 3613 deaths occurred, 945 from heart disease and 805 from cancer.

Of the participants:

  • 71% were white, 11% were non-Hispanic black, and 13% were Hispanic.
  • 9% were female, 49.1% were male.
  • 2 % of the participants reported supplement use in the 30 days preceding the survey.
  • Among the supplement users, the major supplements reported were:
    • Multivitamin/multimineral (74.8%).
    • Vitamin C (40.3%).
    • Calcium (38.6%).
    • Vitamin D (37.6%).
    • Zinc (34.5%).
    • Magnesium (33.3%).

When they compared supplement users with non-supplement users, the supplement users were:

  • More likely to be female and non-Hispanic white.
  • Have higher levels of family education and income.
  • Eat a healthier diet and be more physically active.
  • Less likely to be current smokers, heavy drinkers, or obese.

These are all factors that favor a longer lifespan.  However, the supplement users were also:

  • Older (average age = 50.7 versus 42.8 for non-supplement users).
  • Sicker (They were more likely to have cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels).

These are factors that favor a shorter lifespan.

These are what statisticians refer to as confounding variables. They can influence the results of a study in unexpected ways.


Can Supplements Help You Live Longer?

When they looked at the raw data, supplemental use of most-individual nutrients was associated with a lower risk for all-cause death. In simple terms, supplementation appeared to increase lifespan.

However, when the data were statistically adjusted for all of the confounding variables (age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, physical activity, smoking, alcohol intake, diet quality, BMI [a measure of obesity], and diseases the participants had when they entered the study), the effect of supplementation on lifespan became non-significant.

The authors concluded: “Use of dietary supplements was not associated with mortality benefits among a nationally representative sample of U.S adults.”  Those are the headlines you saw from your favorite news source.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Let’s go back to the two questions I posed about the study at the beginning of this article.

  • Is it true? Can supplements help you live longer?  The study had many weaknesses, which the authors identified in their discussion. Of course, the people writing the headlines never bothered to read the paper, so they were unaware of its weaknesses. Here are some of the major weaknesses reported by the authors:
  • The NHANES questionnaire only asked about supplement use over the preceding 30 days. We have no idea how long the participants had been using those supplements. It could have been years, or it could have been a month. In the words of the authors: “Dietary supplement use was assessed in the previous 30 days, which may not reflect habitual use or capture changes in use [before or] after the baseline assessment.”
  • The supplement users were more likely to have been diagnosed with health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It is well documented that diagnosed health conditions motivate some people to initiate supplement use.
  • Finally, there were multiple confounding variables in this study. The conclusion of the study rested on a statistical adjustment of the data to correct for those confounding variables. In the words of the authors: “Residual confounding may still be present.”

That last point reminds me of the famous Mark Twain quote: “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics.” Don’t misunderstand me. I am not accusing the study authors of lying. They are some of the top scientists in the field. What Mark Twain and I are saying is that when you rely on statistics, sometimes bad things happen. You can come to erroneous conclusions.

  • Is it important? Even if the conclusion of this study is true, we should ask if it is important. If there had been widespread claims that supplements make you live longer, this would be an important finding. However, nobody I know is making that claim. This study simply reaffirms what most people assumed anyway. There is no fountain of youth.

By the way, the situation is similar for diets. There have been a few claims in the past that healthy diets will help you live longer. However, when those claims have been rigorously evaluated, there is very little effect of diet on lifespan. There have been some studies that have reported a decrease in premature death due to heart disease or cancer. However, death from all causes usually remains unchanged. Once again, the fountain of youth has eluded us.

You may be asking, if supplements don’t increase lifespan, what good are they? The answer is simple. They increase healthspan. Simply put, that means you spend a greater portion of your lifespan in good health.

Of course, now you are probably really confused. You’ve read all those headlines saying that supplements don’t have any effect on your health. The problem is that the studies generating those headlines are flawed. They aren’t asking the right questions. When you look at populations with poor diets, increased needs, genetic predisposition, and/or pre-existing disease, supplementation is often beneficial. I cover this in the second half of my book, “Slaying the Supplement Myths.”  That section is called “The Myths Of The Naysayers.”


The Bottom Line


A recent study reported that supplements do not reduce mortality. They won’t make you live longer. In this article I provide a detailed analysis of that article. The two important take-aways are:

  • There are several weaknesses in the study. The conclusion may not be accurate.
  • Even if it is accurate, it may not be important. If there had been widespread claims that supplements make you live longer, this would be an important finding. However, nobody I know is making that claim. This study simply reaffirms what most people assumed anyway. There is no fountain of youth. Could it be that the study generating the recent headlines was designed to disprove a claim nobody was making?

The real benefit of supplementation isn’t in increasing your lifespan. It is increasing your healthspan. I cover that in my book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”

For more details read the article above.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

How to Live a Healthy Lifestyle Longer

Wish I Knew At 20

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

how to live a healthy lifestyleI wish I knew how to live a healthy lifestyle when I was 20.  But, I was a typical 20-year-old American. I ate lots of junk food. I thought an occasional tennis game was all the exercise I needed. I never really thought about what I was doing. I just did what all my friends did. If I hadn’t changed what I was doing, I might have had a short, unhealthy life.

Of course, I did change, and those changes made all the difference. Now I’m in my 70s, and I’m in perfect health. I have no diseases. Even the allergies I had when I was younger have gone away as I improved my diet and lifestyle. I am on no medications. I have the blood pressure of a 16-year-old.

I call this article “How to Live a Healthy Lifestyle:  Wish I Knew At 20”, but this article isn’t about me. I wrote this article for all the other 20-year-olds who know as little about nutrition and health as I did at 20. I also wrote this article for all those people who haven’t changed – those people with the same diet and lifestyle they had at 20. It’s never too late to change and begin to live a healthy lifestyle.


How to Live a Healthy Lifestyle:  What I Wish I Knew At 20


Here are 15 tips I would pass along to all the 20-year-olds, even those 20-year-olds in older bodies:

#1: You Are In Charge: You have a brain. You have free will. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. It is time to start thinking about what your health and your life will be like if you don’t change. More importantly, it is time to start thinking about what your health and your life could be like if you do make positive changes.

#2: It Matters: I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to make positive changes in your diet, your exercise, and your overall lifestyle. We know all the major killer diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, etc) are affected by diet and lifestyle. However, it is much more than avoiding disease. As you age, your quality of life is dramatically affected by how much you have moved and what you have put in your mouth over your lifetime.

If you have any question about how important healthy eating can be, take time to view documentary movies like “Forks Over Knives” or “Eating You Alive.” I’m not necessarily advocating that extreme a diet, but these films will get you thinking.

fad diets#3: Avoid the Fads: Once you have decided to adopt a healthier lifestyle, the hardest part is deciding which changes you should make. You will need to practice a lot of due diligence. There is a lot of hype and misinformation out there. There is a new fad every week. First, it’s low fat. Then it’s low carb. Then it’s no bananas before noon on Thursdays (I’m joking here, but you get the point. Some of the diets are just plain weird).

Most of those diet recommendations sound plausible. They all have their advocates who are only too happy to offer their testimonials. My advice: If it sounds too good to be true, avoid it. If they tell you the medical profession is trying to keep their diet a secret, avoid it. The consensus advice of the medical and nutrition communities may seem boring, but it is generally based on dozens of clinical studies. It is much more likely to be true than advice from your friends, your trainer, or that blogger who values controversy more than accuracy.

#4: We Are All Different: Health recommendations are usually based on dozens of clinical studies. But, here is the secret that only scientists know. Clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you wanted to do a clinical study to evaluate whether a low-carb diet helps people lose weight. You might enroll several hundred people in your study. If you put them all on an identical low-carb diet for 8 weeks, some of them would lose weight. Others would gain weight. At the end of the 8 weeks, you would average all weight changes together and report the average weight loss.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the average weight loss was 6.4 pounds. That’s fine except that not a single person in the study lost exactly 6.4 pounds, and some may have even gained weight. The bottom line is that your results may be different from conventional wisdom. Your results may be different from your friend’s. You will need to find out what works best for you.

#5: You Don’t Have To Change All At Once: Some people have an iron will and can make drastic changes overnight. Most of us aren’t like that. If we try to change too many things at once, we become overwhelmed. We become discouraged. Sometimes we quit. Think of this as a marathon, not a sprint. Make “Change One” your slogan. Change one thing each week until you are where you want to be. One week it may be replacing sugary desserts with fruits. Another week it may be adding a green vegetable to your dinner plate. Over time, all those small changes will result in a totally different lifestyle.

processed foods#6: Your Tastes Will Change: The first time you choose a low sodium food, it will taste bland. Over time you will come to enjoy the subtle flavors of the food and will come to dislike added salt. The first time you switch from whole milk to low fat milk it will taste like water. Over time you will learn to appreciate low fat milk, and whole milk will taste greasy. I could give lots more examples, but you get the point.

#7: Processed Foods, Sweets, and Sodas Will Kill You: I’m being dramatic here, but they are bad for your health. They have no place as part of a healthy diet. Replace the processed foods and sweets with whole foods. Replace the sodas with water or herbal teas.

#8: It’s What You Do Every Day That Matters: Refined grains, pastries and sweets should be only an occasional indulgence. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be the mainstay of your everyday diet. Eat a plant-based diet as much as possible.

#9: Protein Is Important, Especially As We Get Older: Low fat or vegetarian protein sources should be your first choice. Chicken (with the skin removed) and fish are the healthiest meats. Nuts, beans & seeds are excellent vegetarian protein sources, especially in combination. Think of red meats as no more than an occasional indulgence.

#10: Avoid The Center Of The Supermarket: This is my only shopping advice. In general, supermarkets are arranged with real foods around the edges and the processed foods in the middle.

organic foods#11: Choose Organic: Our planet has become so polluted that is has become impossible to completely avoid toxic chemicals in our environment. They are in our air, our water, our soil, and our homes. Our only defense is to be informed consumers and avoid them whenever possible. If the cost of organic produce is an issue for you, be selective. There is a Dirty Dozen  list of fruits and vegetables that are the ones most likely to be contaminated with pesticides and herbicides.

#12: Get Lots Of Exercise: Most experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 times per week. More is even better. For best results choose a combination of aerobic and weight bearing exercise.

#13: Control Your Weight: We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. The problem is that 80% of us are genetically predisposed to become obese if we eat a typical American diet and follow a typical American lifestyle. The solution isn’t the fad diet du jour. The solution is to change our diet and our lifestyle. For most of us, the changes I have outlined above will allow you to gradually attain & maintain your ideal weight.

#14: Supplementation Plays A Role: Supplementation is not a magic bullet, but it is an important component of a holistic wellness program. Some of us need supplementation to fill in nutritional gaps in our diet. Some of us need supplementation because of increased needs, either because of disease or genetics. Some of us choose supplementation to achieve optimal health.

#15: Enjoy The Journey: If you think of a healthy lifestyle as depriving you of the things you enjoy, you will avoid it. Instead, think of it as an adventure. Have fun exploring new fruits and vegetables. Try cooking with herbs and spices. Seek out restaurants and recipes that turn healthy foods into a gourmet experience. Find exercises that you actually enjoy.  Now you know how to live a healthy lifestyle and for longer.

What Does This Mean For You?

This was not meant to be a diet book. Because each of us is different, I have shared 15 tips rather than a rigid diet plan that everyone should follow. However, I suspect many of you are scratching your heads and saying: “Where do I go from here?”. For those of you who would like more specific recommendations for your new, healthier lifestyle, I recommend my recent article “What Is The Best Diet For You?”.


The Bottom Line


In this article, I have shared 15 tips for a longer, healthier life. They are:

  • You are in charge.
  • It matters.
  • Avoid the fads.
  • We are all different.
  • You don’t have to change all at once.
  • Your tastes will change.
  • Processed foods, sweets and sodas will kill you.
  • It’s what you do every day that matters.
  • Protein is important, especially as we age,
  • Avoid the center of the supermarket.
  • Choose Organic.
  • Get lots of exercise.
  • Control your weight.
  • Supplementation plays a role.
  • Enjoy the journey.

For more details, read the article above and find out how to live a healthy lifestyle longer.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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