Medical studies have hinted that vitamin E might help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. But new research shows that in people at greatest risk for heart problems, high does of vitamin E actually increased that risk.
Heart patient Jim Hill underwent surgery, called a quadruple bypass, to replace sections of four heart arteries clogged with fats. Afterward, he looked for ways to reduce his risk of more heart problems. Mr. Hill had heard that vitamin E supplements could help and could also reduce his risk of cancer.
"I was talking to the cardiologist and I was curious about vitamin E,” he said. “There were no studies on it, but he said it wouldn't hurt for me to take it."
It seemed a safe guess. But a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that extra doses of vitamin E may indeed hurt people like Jim, adults over age 55 with a history of heart problems, diabetes, or other risk factors for heart disease.
The study leader is physician Eva Lonn of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
"In high-risk people, vitamin E does not prevent cardiovascular disease, namely heart attack and stroke, and it does not prevent cancer,” she noted. “Furthermore, we noticed an increased risk of heart failure, so there is a potential for harm in people receiving vitamin E."
Dr. Lonn worked with colleagues in the United States and 13 other countries to track the health of more than 9000 heart patients, some for as long as almost 10 years. They compared those taking 400 milligrams of vitamin E a day to those taking a placebo, or sugar pill. The results for those who took vitamin E the longest were dramatic.
"We noticed actually a 40 percent increase in risk of hospital admission for heart failure," she added.
Dr. Lonn says doctors and patients need to reconsider high doses of vitamin E.
"There is often the belief, well even if it doesn't benefit you, it causes no harm,” she explained. “Now, our study suggests that this assumption is not always correct."
Jim Hall was part of that study and felt relieved when he later learned that he was taking a placebo, not vitamin E. Now he takes prescription medications for his heart health.
Dr. Lonn emphasizes that the patients in the study were taking high doses of vitamin E, about 400 milligrams a day. They were also people at high risk for heart disease.
"Whether in the general population younger people without vascular disease vitamin E is beneficial or detrimental is still in question," she said.
The Ontario physician says people should still try to consume about 15 milligrams of vitamin E each day. U.S. government health recommendations call for about 10 milligrams. Both amounts can easily be consumed in a balanced diet that includes vitamin E sources such as vegetable oils; dark green, leafy vegetables; whole cereal grain products; nuts; seeds; eggs; and dairy products.