Is a $3 bottle of vitamins a cheap way to avoid open-heart surgery costing thousands of dollars?
Not exactly, but according to a study published yesterday by School of Public Health and Medical School researchers, men and women who take vitamin E supplements are respectively 40 and 46 percent less likely to suffer from heart disease.
The Men's study of 40,000 health care professionals ages 40 to 75 assessed intake of three nutrients--vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotenes--which are known as antioxidants.
Antioxidants are thought to prevent oxidation of LDL, so-called "bad" cholesterol, which leads to quicker clogging of the arteries, according to the study's lead author, Department of Epidemiology research associate Eric B. Rimm.
The men's study, published in yesterday's New England Journal of Medicine, found that men who took vitamin E supplements were 40 percent less likely to suffer from heart disease. Eating beta-carotenes, found in carrots, yellow squash and broccoli, only reduced risk for men who had previously or never smoked. Vitamin C intake, however, had no effect on risk, after E was taken into account.
Similar results, with a risk reduction of 46 percent among 87,245 women who took vitamin E supplements for two years or more, were also reported in yesterday's New England Journal.
Rimm cautioned in a telephone interview yesterday, however, that even if the results of the two studies are confirmed in other trials, such risks must be balanced with other well-documented risk factors for heart disease such as smoking.
"It's important that people not disregard everything else we know about risks for heart disease," Rimm said.
There was some evidence at CVS in Harvard Square yesterday that some anxious customers were taking the results of the study, which have received a large amount of media attention, directly to heart.
CVS cashier Nikki Stephens said there had been a big increase in vitamin E sales recently, but much of it may be because of a storewide sale CVS has been having.
"All day, people have been coming in, buying three or four bottles," Stephens said. "I've been thinking about [buying some vitamin E]."
Another cashier said, "A lot of people have been buying vitamin E."
Typically vitamin E supplements and multi-vitamins such as those sold at drug stores contain 100 to 400 international units of the nutrient. This is far more than the average daily intake of the vitamin, usually about 10 to 15 units, Rimm said.
Only a few foods, such as nuts, seeds, and whole grains, contain even significant amounts of vitamin E. Beta-carotenes can be found in large amounts in carrots.
Rimm said that while natural vitamin E may be more efficiently metabolized, such effects are minimized when taking even synthetic supplements because the amount of the nutrient is so much more than normal intake.
While many nutrition experts caution against taking high doses of vitamin E and other Fat-soluble vitamins, Rimm said vitamin E is one of the least toxic of the vitamins.
Although no studies have been completed on vitamin E's toxicity over the course of many years, Rimm said there have been no reports of its toxicity at 100 to 400 units for up to one year.
At extremely high levels, however, hundreds of times the amount contained in one supplement, Rimm said, vitamin E may prevent absorption of other vitamins.
"It's too early to be making national policy recommendations that people should be taking vitamin E," said Rimm, who recommends that individuals decide for themselves how applicable the study's findings are to their lifestyles and dietary habits, and weigh the risks.
"This is just the beginning of understanding the potential health benefits of antioxidants," he said.
But Rimm seems convinced. "I take vitamin E," he said. "I'm taking that risk."