Heart Disease Risk and Multivitamins

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Health Current Events, Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Living, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

heart disease riskIt’s so confusing. One week vitamins are going to reduce your heart disease risk and cancer risk. The next week they are worthless. They might even kill you. So when you saw the recent headlines suggesting that multivitamin-mineral supplement use might decrease heart disease risk in women, you probably weren’t sure what to think.

More to the point, you may be thinking “Why is it so hard to get this right? Why can’t scientists decide once and for all whether vitamins are beneficial or not?”

Perhaps, the best way to understand the significance of the present study is to look at the strengths and limitations of previous studies. Then we can start to gain perspective on why it is so difficult to come to a definitive conclusion about this very important question.

How Good Is The Evidence That Multivitamin Use Doesn’t Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

heart disease and multivitaminsMedical authorities are fond of telling you, with a great deal of confidence, that studies have conclusively proven multivitamin use does not decrease heart disease risk. However, in fact, that conclusion is based on only a few studies, and those studies have their limitations.

For example, the Physician’s Health Study II (Sesso et al, JAMA, 308: 1751-1760, 2012) reported that use of a multivitamin-mineral supplement for 11 years did not decrease cardiovascular incidence or mortality. It was a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study. That’s the best kind of study, so it would be tempting to consider the case closed.

However, this study looked at a very small segment of the population. The participants were all male, primarily non-Hispanic whites, well to do, highly educated and health conscious. It also turns out that the participants that were in the poorest health and had the poorest health habits tended to drop out of the study and were not included in the final data analysis.

That means that the vast majority of participants in the study were at low risk of heart disease and were eating relatively healthy diets. Those are the people who would be least likely to benefit from supplementation. In short, this study proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the people least likely to benefit from supplementation did, in fact, not benefit from supplementation.

The studies that medical authorities quote as proving their case for women have all looked at antioxidant supplements and cardiovascular disease. There are three double-blind, placebo controlled studies that have all come to the conclusion that antioxidant supplements do not decrease cardiovascular risk in women. Once again, it might be tempting to consider the case closed.

However, in two of those studies (Lee et al, JAMA, 294: 56-65, 2005; Cook et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167: 1610-1618, 2007) when they looked at the subset of women who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease (either because of age or pre-existing disease), antioxidant supplements significantly decreased the risk of cardiovascular events and cardiovascular deaths. In short, these studies showed that those people most likely to benefit from supplementation, did, in fact, benefit from supplementation.

Finally, medical authorities have chosen to completely ignore a recent study reporting that multivitamin use significantly decreased heart attack risk in women, especially if they had been using the multivitamins for 5 years or more (Rautiainen et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92: 1251-1256, 2010). In short, previous studies have not conclusively proven much of anything except that it is really hard to get definitive answers to this kind of question.

Does Multivitamin Use Decrease Cardiovascular Disease Risk In Women?

cardiovascular disease in womenThe current study (Bailey et al, Journal of Nutrition, 145: 572-580, 2015) compared multivitamin use in 8678 adults(65% women) 40 years or older, from the USDA’s NHANES III database and compared it with cardiovascular death reports in the National Death Index 18 years later.

At the time of the NHANES III study, 45% of the adults surveyed had used some kind of supplement within the past 30 days. When the researchers broke the data down further:

  • 21% were using multivitamin-mineral supplements (3 or more vitamins and 1 or more minerals)
  • 14% were using multivitamin supplements (3 or more vitamins, no minerals).
  • Among multivitamin-mineral and multivitamin supplement users, only 46% had been using them for 3 years or more.

When they compared supplement usage with cardiovascular deaths 18 years later, the results were as follows:

  • When they asked if multivitamin-mineral or multivitamin use at the beginning of the study affected cardiovascular mortality 18 years later, the answer was a clear no.
  • When they looked at women, use of a multivitamin-mineral supplement for 3 years or more was associated with a 35% decreased risk of cardiovascular mortality.
  • However, they did not find any cardiovascular benefit from long term use of a multivitamin supplement alone for women. From this, they concluded that the beneficial effects of the multivitamin-mineral supplement came from one of the minerals, most likely magnesium or calcium.
  • There was a slight hint that multivitamin use might be beneficial for men, but the number of cardiovascular deaths in that group was too small for the results to be statistically significant.

What Does This Study Mean?

This study suggests that long term use of a multivitamin-mineral supplement may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease deaths in women. Whether long term multivitamin use also reduces risk of cardiovascular disease in men is an open question. This study is consistent with another recent study looking at multivitamin use in women (Rautiainen et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92: 1251-1256, 2010). However, these studies are just a piece of the puzzle. It will take time and more studies before we will really be able to definitively say whether or not multivitamin use can decrease the risk of heart disease, or any other disease.

How Can You Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk?

The surest way to reduce your risk of heart disease is to develop a heart healthy lifestyle.

  • reduce heart disease riskLose weight and/or maintain ideal body weight. Overweight and obesity dramatically increase all of the major risk factors for heart disease – LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, diabetes, hypertension and inflammation.
  • Exercise for more than 30 minutes – 3 times or more/week. Regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.
  • Follow a diet low in saturated fat and trans-fat (substitute monounsaturated fats like olive oil and omega-3 fats); low in sugars and artificial sweeteners; and high in fiber, whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fish.
  • Work with your physician to control predisposing diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

What about supplementation? What role does it play in a heart healthy lifestyle? At present it’s pretty clear that the scientific community cannot definitively prove whether supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease or not. All the available evidence suggests that supplementation is most likely to prove beneficial for those who are at highest risk for heart disease and/or are most likely to be deficient in key nutrients – either because of poor diet or genetic variations that increase nutrient requirements.

In the best of all possible worlds we would know who was at high risk for heart disease and who was deficient in key nutrients. We would know who would benefit from supplements and who would not, but we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

  • Most people don’t know they are at risk for heart disease until it is too late. For far too many people the first symptom of heart disease is sudden death.
  • Genetics can greatly increase the need for key nutrients, and most people are completely unaware of those genetic predispositions until it is too late. In the future, we may be able to design genetic tests to determine individual nutritional requirements with precision, but we are decades away from that Utopian age at present.
  • Finally, many people are either blissfully unaware how unhealthy their diet is, or they just don’t want to do anything about it.

For all of the reasons above, I recommend a balanced supplementation program as part of a heart healthy lifestyle. The supplements most likely to be beneficial are a multivitamin-mineral supplement, antioxidants, omega-3s, and B vitamins. I have covered the evidence for the role of each of these nutrients in preserving heart health in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Of course, I do not recommend supplementation as an alternative to a heart healthy lifestyle. Taking a multivitamin along with your Big Mac is probably not going to do much for your heart health.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study reported that women who used a multivitamin – mineral supplement for 3 years or more decreased their risk of dying from heart disease over the next 18 years by 35%. The men in the study may have received some benefit from multivitamin – mineral supplementation, but the numbers were not large enough to be statistically significant.
  • This study is fully consistent with the results of a previous study with women. However, when we look at all of the available studies it is not possible to definitively conclude whether supplementation decreases the risk of heart disease or not.
  • All of the available evidence suggests that supplementation is most likely to be beneficial for those people who are at highest risk of heart disease and/or are most likely to be deficient in key nutrients.
  • In the best of all possible worlds we would know who was at high risk for heart disease and who was deficient in key nutrients. We would know who would benefit from supplements and who would not, but we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.
  • Most people don’t know they are at risk for heart disease until it is too late. For far too many people the first symptom of heart disease is sudden death.
  • Genetics can greatly increase the need for key nutrients, and most people are completely unaware of those genetic predispositions until it is too late. In the future, we may be able to design genetic tests to determine individual nutritional requirements with precision, but we are decades away from that Utopian age at present.
  • Finally many people are either blissfully unaware how unhealthy their diet is, or they just don’t want to do anything about it.
  • For the reasons above, I recommend a balanced supplementation program as part of a heart healthy lifestyle. The supplements most likely to be beneficial are a multivitamin-mineral supplement, antioxidants, omega-3s, and B vitamins.
  • Of course,I do not recommend supplementation as an alternative to a heart healthy lifestyle. Taking a multivitamin along with your Big Mac is probably not going to do much for your heart health.

 

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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Comments (2)

  • denise

    |

    is magnesium good for the heart

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Magnesium is indeed good for the heart. That doesn’t mean we need mega-doses of it. However, many Americans do not get the recommended intake of magnesium from their diet. For most people a multivitamin providing 50% of the DV for magnesium should be sufficient, although some people may need more.

      Reply

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Latest Article

Are Pregnant Women and Children Dangerously Deficient in Omega-3s?

Posted August 13, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Omega-3 Status Of The American Population?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

pregnant women omega 3 deficient fishIt is no secret that the American population is deficient in omega-3s. Numerous studies have documented that fact. There are many reasons for Americans’ low intake of omega-3s:

  • The high price of omega-3-rich fish.
  • Concerns about sustainability, heavy metal contamination, and/or PCB contamination of omega-3 rich fish.
  • Misleading headlines claiming that omega-3 supplements are worthless and may even do you harm.

Of course, the questions you are asking are probably?

  • How deficient are we?
  • Does it matter?

The latest study (M Thompson et al, Nutrients, 2019, 11: 177, doi: 10.3390/nu11010177) goes a long way towards answering those important questions.

How Was The Study Done?

scientific studyThis study used data on 45,347 Americans who participated in NHANES surveys between 2003 and 2014. (NHANES or National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys is a program run by the CDC that is designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children living in the United States).

EPA and DHA intake from foods was based on the average of two 24-hour dietary recall interviews. Trained dietary interviewers collected detailed information on all foods and beverages consumed during the past 24 hours.

To assess EPA and DHA intake from supplements study participants were asked what supplements they had taken in the past 30 days, how many days out of 30 they had taken it, and the amount that was taken on those days.

 

What Is The Omega-3 Status Of The American Population?

 

omega 3 statusThe results of the NHANES surveys were shocking.

In terms of total EPA+DHA intake:

  • EPA+DHA intake across all age groups was lower than recommended.
  • Toddlers (ages 1-5), children (ages 6-11), and adolescents (ages 12-19) had lower EPA+DHA intakes than adults (ages 20-55) and seniors (ages > 55).
  • Women had lower EPA+DHA intakes than men.
  • Pregnant women and women of childbearing age did not differ in their EPA+DHA.
  • Pregnant women consumed less fish than women of childbearing age (perhaps because of concerns about heavy metal contamination).
  • Pregnant women consumed more omega-3 supplements.

In terms of EPA+DHA from supplements:

  • Less than 1% of the American population reported using omega-3 supplements.
  • The one exception was pregnant women. 7.3% of pregnant women reported taking an omega-3 supplement.
  • People taking omega-3 supplements had significantly higher EPA+DHA intake than people not taking omega-3 supplements.
  • This was also true for pregnant women. Those taking omega-3 supplements had higher EPA+DHA intake.

Of course, like any clinical study, it has strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest weakness of this study is that omega-3 intake is based on the participants recall of what they ate. The strengths of the study are its size (45,347 participants) and the fact that its estimate of omega-3 intake is consistent with several smaller studies.

 

Are Americans Deficient In Omega-3s?

 

pregnant women omega 3 deficient questionsNow we are ready to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. Let’s start with the first one: “How deficient are we?”

You would think the answer to that question would be easy. It is not. This study provides a precise estimate of American’s omega-3 intake. The problem is there is no consensus as to how much omega-3s we need. There is no RDA for omega-3s.

There are, in fact, three sets of guidelines for how much omega-3s we need, and they disagree.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for EPA+DHA intake range from 100-150 mg/day at ages 2-4 years to 200-500 mg/day for adults.
  • The US National Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations for EPA+DHA intake range from 70 mg/day for ages 1-3 to 110 mg/day for adult females and 160 mg/day for adult males.
  • As if that weren’t confusing enough, an international group of experts recently convened for a “Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids” (Workshop). This group recommended an EPA+DHA intake of 440 mg/day for adults and 520 mg/day for pregnant and lactating women.

Using these recommendations as guidelines, this study reported that:

  • EPA+DHA intake for children 1-5 years old was ~25% of the WHO recommendations and ~40% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for children 6-11 years old was ~27% of WHO recommendations and ~40% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for adolescents 12-19 years old was ~50% of IOM recommendations (The WHO did not have a separate category for adolescents.
  • EPA+DHA intake for adults 20-55 years old was ~30% of WHO recommendations, and ~65% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for seniors >55 years old was 38% of WHO recommendations and 82% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for pregnant women was ~20% of Workshop recommendations (The WHO and IOM did not have a separate category for pregnant women).

While the percentage deficiency varied according to the EPA+DHA guidelines used, it is clear from these results that Americans of all age groups are not getting enough omega-3s from their diet.

The authors concluded: “We found omega-3 intakes across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts.”

 

Are Pregnant Women and Young Children Dangerously Deficient In Omega-3s?

 

danger symbolWhile the authors concluded that all age groups were deficient in omega-3s, they were particularly concerned about the omega-3 deficiencies in pregnant women and young children.

The authors said: “Taken together, these findings demonstrate that low omega-3 fatty acid intake is consistent among the US population and could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women).”

In part, the focus on young children and pregnant women was based on their very low omega-3 intake. With intakes at 20-27% of recommended levels, I would consider these groups to be dangerously deficient in omega-3s.

pregnant women omega 3 deficient pregnancyHowever, the focus on young children and pregnant women was also based on the seriousness of the adverse health outcomes associated with low omega-3 intake in these population groups. This answers the second question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Does it matter?”

According to the authors low intake of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with maternal depression, pre-term births, low birth-weight babies, increased risk of allergies and asthma, problems with learning and cognition, and other neurocognitive outcomes.

None of these associations between low omega-3 intake and adverse health outcomes have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the evidence is strong enough that we should be alarmed by the very low omega-3 intake in pregnant women and young children.

There is, however, a simple solution. The authors of this study concluded: “Individuals taking EPA/DHA containing supplements had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking omega-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use.”

omega 3 supplementsThey went on to say: “As supplement use is associated with increased omega-3 intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

I agree. Given the low omega-3 intake in these population group and current guidelines for omega-3 intake. I recommend:

  • Pregnant & lactating women (and women of childbearing age who might become pregnant) take an omega-3 supplement providing around 520 mg of EPA+DHA/day.
  • Young children (ages 1-5) take an omega-3 supplement providing around 100 mg of DHA/day.

Of course, this study also confirmed that Americans of all age groups are not getting enough omega-3s from their diet, and low omega-3 intake may increase the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that high purity omega-3 supplements may reduce heart disease risk.

You will find my recommendations for omega-3 supplementation for adults in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor.”

 

The Bottom Line

 

The largest study to date (45,347 participants) measured omega-3 intake for Americans of all ages and compared that to current recommendations for omega-3 intake.

The authors of the study concluded:

  • “We found omega-3 intakes across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts.”
  • “Low omega-3 fatty acid intake … could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women.”

In part, the focus on young children and pregnant women was based on their very low omega-3 intake. With intakes at 20-27% of recommended levels, I would consider these groups to be dangerously deficient in omega-3s.

However, the focus on young children and pregnant women was also based on the seriousness of the adverse health outcomes associated with low omega-3 intake in these population groups.

  • According to the authors low intake of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with maternal depression, pre-term births, low birth-weight babies, increased risk of allergies and asthma, problems with learning and cognition, and other neurocognitive outcomes.

There is, however, a simple solution. The authors of this study also concluded:

  • “Individuals taking EPA/DHA containing supplements had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking omega-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use.”
  • “As supplement use is associated with increased omega-3 intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

For more details on the study and my recommendations for omega-3 supplementation, 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.

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