The Family Health Guide

About staying healthy

Good health is the most important gift you can give yourself and your family. We sift through the latest discoveries to bring you our expert advice on lifestyle choices you can make to help you and your loved ones feel your best and enjoy every day to the full.

Vitamin E supplements

If you've been taking vitamin E supplements, you're not alone. The positive results of early studies on the antioxidant led many to take it in hopes of preventing or slowing everything from respiratory infections to macular degeneration. But what proves hopeful in early, preliminary studies doesn't always pan out in larger research settings, and vitamin E is a case in point.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the breakdown of cells of the macula, the small part of the eye that allows us to see things sharply and in color. Little is known about what causes AMD, which is the leading source of vision loss in people older than 55.

Early observational studies showed vitamin E might help prevent macular degeneration. To test this theory, researchers recruited close to 1,200 participants between the ages of 55 and 80 to receive either a daily vitamin E supplement or a placebo for four years. Participants underwent annual eye exams to detect signs of development or progression of AMD and changes in visual function.

The results of this study showed the incidence of AMD was similar among participants in the two groups. In the vitamin E group 8.6% developed AMD, whereas 8.1% in the placebo group did. Though this study clearly indicates that vitamin E does not help prevent or slow the progression of AMD, the study period was short, so it doesn't prove that vitamin E doesn't help in the long run.

(British Journal of Medicine, July 6, 2002)

Respiratory Infections

Early studies showed that vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin E, may boost immune response in healthy elderly people. With this in mind, Dutch researchers set out to investigate whether either of the supplements lessens the rate and severity of respiratory infections in the elderly.

The researchers enlisted 652 participants over the age of 60 and broke them randomly into four groups. Each day, they either took a multivitamin with minerals and a placebo, a vitamin E pill and a placebo, both a multivitamin with minerals and vitamin E pill, or two placebos. After fifteen months of follow-up, the researchers found that the rate of respiratory infections did not differ among the groups. However, those who took vitamin E supplements actually had respiratory infections that were more severe — they were longer, caused more symptoms, and restricted more of the sufferer's activities.

(Journal of the American Medical Association, August 14, 2002)

February 2003 Update