Simply taking a multivitamin and other key supplements on a daily basis can help promote good health and stave off a wide range of diseases, according to a new report released by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).
The report found that continued use of multivitamins (preferably with minerals) and other single-nutrient supplements (such as calcium or folic acid) could have a significant effect in areas ranging from strengthening the immune system of highly vulnerable elderly patients to drastically reducing the risk of neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida.
The report - The Benefits of Nutritional Supplements - is based on a review of studies measuring the effects of multivitamins and other supplements carried out over the last decade. It looked at antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, calcium, long chain omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oils, vitamin D, vitamins B-6 and B-12 and folic acid, among others.
"The medical and scientific communities are rapidly accumulating powerful evidence about the role of nutritional supplements in both health promotion and disease prevention," said Annette Dickinson, author of report and CRN vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs.
"This growing critical mass of data underscores the need for health professionals to do more to encourage patients to get into a regular, defined routine of supplementation. While it is never too late to start incorporating supplements into a healthy lifestyle, there is compelling evidence that consistent, long-term use provides the strongest benefits," she said.
The report claims, among other things, that neural tube defects such as spina bifida could be reduced by as much as 70 per cent through the simple use of multivitamins and folic acid, while elderly people could improve their immune functions by taking multivitamins and minerals. Supplementation with calcium and vitamin D, on the other hand, could reduce the rate of hip fracture among older people by at least 20 per cent.
The CRN said that the results of its study would be of particular interest to the health authorities, in that the potential cost savings by preventing disease rather than treating it were substantial. It cited a 1997 study which claimed that if the occurrence of cardiovascular disease, stroke and hip fracture were delayed five years, then the total US health care cost savings could equal $89 billion annually.
"Scientific evidence in support of the health benefits of nutritional supplements has grown dramatically in recent years," said Jeffrey Blumberg, a professor in the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. "We must now work to translate this knowledge to health care providers, policy makers and consumers so the simple actions people can take to promote their health and prevent disease can be more fully realised. The impact of a rational use of dietary supplements can also help reduce health care costs which escalate every year as our population grows older."
Dickinson concluded: " While the overall improvement of dietary habits has been the focus of much research on health promotion and disease prevention, the medical and scientific communities are increasingly recognising that nutritional supplements have a critical role to play. Too many studies have shown that most diets - even fairly healthy ones - fall well below the Recommended Dietary Allowance for many nutrients. Supplements are a proven bridge between what we should eat and what we actually eat."
A full copy of the report can be read on the CRN website.