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NUTRITION AND THE ELDERLY: Vitamins don't help (but, then, they do)

Getting a conventional doctor to review nutritional medicine is a bit like asking the Hunchback of Notre Dame to provide an overview of pilates.

In the main doctors hold to the view that we get all the nutrition we need from our diets, a position arrived at after four hours tuition on nutrition out of five years at medical school.

So when a group of doctors prepare a study that tells us that multivitamins and mineral supplements don't help elderly people maintain health, we know it's a conclusion we need to treat with caution. A study team, from the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, carried out a meta-analysis of a handful of studies carried out among the elderly between 1966 and last year. At best, they say, the evidence is 'conflicting', but nonetheless conclude that multivitamins and minerals don't help the elderly stay healthier. This ignores the findings of three of the eight studies reviewed that concluded that vitamins reduce the numbers of days of infection by 17.5 compared with elderly people who didn't take multivitamins. So 40 per cent of the studies found that vitamins are important for sustaining health, and yet the researchers concluded that the evidence for supplements is 'weak'.

The studies were working on standard RDA levels of nutrition, which most of us accept is far too low to sustain good health. Then there's the issue of the quality of the vitamins. One bottle of vitamin C is not the same as another bottle, despite what it says on the label. This, again, has probably not been taken into account.

The study does its job, however, which is to confirm what its readers were expecting to see. Get back to your meat and vegetables.


  • British Medical Journal, 2005; 330: 871-4