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Some past research had suggested that vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin D may be helpful in preventing the development of cardiovascular disease. This led to many people adopting the use of a daily multivitamin as a precaution against suffering a heart attack. Over half of the American population takes at least one vitamin regularly, and approximately 40 percent report taking a multivitamin every day. However, recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has indicated that multivitamins are not effective in reducing the risk of heart attack in men.

The National Institutes of Health funded the Physicians Health Study II, which involved following 14,641 male physicians, ages 50 and older, for over 11 years on average. When the study began, over 700 subjects already had heart disease. Half were given a daily multivitamin to take, and the other half were given an identical-looking placebo.

During the course of the study, researchers recorded any cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart attack and death from heart disease. Both groups showed similar numbers of cardiovascular events and although there were slightly fewer deaths related to heart attack, the difference was not statistically significant.

It’s worth mentioning that there were a number of drawbacks to the choice of subjects for this study. The study participants were all physicians, who tend to be healthier, wealthier and more educated on average, so scientists cannot know if multivitamins may be of benefit to those who do not have those advantages. Physicians are among the people least likely to be suffering from a vitamin deficiency. Additionally, this study was performed exclusively on men, so how women may react to taking a daily multivitamin is unknown.

One issue discussed widely by researchers in their observations about multivitamins is that many people use them in place of making healthy lifestyle choices. In an editorial related to the study, Dr. Eva Lonn, professor of cardiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, said, “Many people with heart disease risk factors or previous [cardiovascular disease] events lead sedentary lifestyles, eat processed or fast foods, continue to smoke, and stop taking lifesaving prescribed medications, but purchase and regularly use vitamins and other dietary supplements, in the hope that this approach will prevent a future [heart attack] or stroke.” Howard Sesso, an author of the study and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said, “Many people take vitamins as a crutch. There’s no substitute for a heart-healthy diet and exercise.”

The researchers did not find any evidence that multivitamins were detrimental to heart health and they stressed that their study only examined the effect of multivitamins on cardiovascular disease. Multivitamins may be useful in guarding against other diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis. However, your best bet for optimal heart health is doing as the researchers suggested by eating a healthy diet and getting a sufficient amount of regular exercise. That is the surest way to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

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