‘Overpromise and Underdeliver’: New Research Finds Daily Multivitamins May Actually Shorten Lifespan

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jun 28, 2024

Daily multivitamins have long been touted as essential for good health. However, a major study analyzing the health records of nearly 400,000 adults challenges this notion, revealing that these supplements may actually increase the risk of early death.

The research, led by Dr. Erikka Loftfield at the National Cancer Institute, brings new insights into the true impact of daily multivitamin use.

Analyzing Health Records Over Two Decades

Researchers examined health records spanning over two decades, focusing on adults with no major long-term diseases. The study, published in JAMA Network, found no evidence that daily multivitamins reduced mortality risk.

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Instead, a 4% higher mortality risk was observed among users during the initial years of follow-up, raising concerns about the true benefits of these supplements.

Multivitamin Use in the UK and US

Multivitamins remain popular despite the study’s findings. Nearly half of UK adults take multivitamins or dietary supplements regularly, contributing to a domestic market worth over half a billion pounds annually.

A person holds many different vitamins, supplements, and pills in their hand.

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In the US, a third of adults use multivitamins, hoping to prevent disease, yet the science suggests otherwise. This widespread use persists despite mounting evidence questioning their efficacy.

Potential Risks of Certain Supplements

The study highlights potential risks associated with certain supplements. For instance, while natural beta-carotene protects against cancer, beta-carotene supplements may increase the risk of lung cancer and heart disease.

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Additionally, iron in many multivitamins can lead to iron overload, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and dementia. These findings suggest that supplements may lack crucial ingredients found in natural food sources.

Expert Opinions on Multivitamins

Dr. Neal Barnard from George Washington University emphasized that “multivitamins overpromise and underdeliver.” He advises focusing on healthy foods, which provide a broad range of nutrients naturally.

Close-Up Shot of a Doctor Wearing a Lab Coat and Stethoscope

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Dietitian Duane Mellor also notes that supplements can’t fix an unhealthy diet but can help cover nutrient gaps, particularly vitamin D in the UK during winter or vitamin B12 for vegans and vegetarians.

Historical Context of Vitamin Use

Historically, vitamins have saved lives, such as sailors being protected from scurvy by vitamin C. Some vitamins like beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and zinc have shown benefits in slowing age-related macular degeneration.

A close-up of one brown and orangeish Vitamin D gelcap, against an orange surface, with many vitamins in the background.

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However, these specific cases don’t translate to overall mortality benefits, reinforcing the need for a balanced diet over-reliance on supplements.


Preliminary Findings on Cognitive Decline

There is some preliminary evidence suggesting that multivitamins might slow cognitive decline in older adults.

A study from 2022 indicated potential benefits, but more research is needed to confirm these findings. While these initial results are promising, they don’t negate the broader risks and lack of longevity benefits identified in the recent study.


Market Trends and Consumer Behavior

The global market for dietary supplements is massive, valued at tens of billions of dollars annually. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence supporting their benefits, multivitamins remain a staple in many households.

The image is a close-up of a variety of colorful medication pills and capsules scattered densely. There are different shapes, sizes, and colors ranging from red, blue, yellow, pink, and white. Some capsules have visible imprints or text on them, while others are solid or translucent

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This enduring popularity highlights a gap between consumer behavior and scientific evidence, suggesting a need for better public education on the topic.


The Role of a Balanced Diet

Experts agree that a balanced diet is the best way to obtain essential nutrients. Healthy foods provide a range of micronutrients, macronutrients, and fiber that supplements can’t replicate.

Many different vegetable options seen on shelves at a grocery store.

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Limiting saturated fat and cholesterol while consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is recommended for overall health and longevity.


Supplements as a Nutrient Safety Net

While not a cure-all, supplements can serve as a safety net for those struggling to get key nutrients from their diet.

A person pours pills out of a bottle.

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For example, vitamin D supplementation is advised in the UK during winter months, and vitamin B12 is essential for vegans and vegetarians. These targeted uses of supplements can help address specific deficiencies without replacing the need for a healthy diet.


Misconceptions About Multivitamins

The belief that multivitamins can prevent disease and promote longevity is widespread but misguided. The recent study adds to a growing body of evidence challenging these misconceptions.

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Consumers should be wary of overpromising claims and instead focus on proven dietary and lifestyle habits that support long-term health.


Future Research Directions

Ongoing research is essential to fully understand the impact of multivitamins on health. Future studies could continue to explore specific scenarios where supplements might be beneficial, as well as potential risks.

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This evolving field of research will help refine guidelines and recommendations for supplement use.