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For a society in which more than half of all adults take at least one dietary supplement per day, the results of the Physicians Health Study II may be a surprise.
In the only large-scale and long-term study of its type, 14,661 male physicians over the age of 50 were observed for more the 11 years in order to determine whether taking a daily multivitamin, in this case Pfizer’s (NYSE:PFE) Centrum Silver, could cut the risk of heart attack and stroke.
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The study’s findings, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and presented Monday at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting, showed little evidence to support that thesis. After the 11 year period, researchers found little difference between the health of participants who took the multivitamin and those that took the placebo. However, the study did give some evidence that vitamins could help lower the risk for cancer in healthy older men.
“Many people take vitamins as a crutch,” said Howard Sesso, one of the authors of the study. “There’s no substitute for a heart-healthy diet and exercise.”
While Sesso noted that the overall good health of the physicians included in the study made it more difficult to determine the added benefit of the multivitamin, the study revealed some important facts of the supplement industry in the United States.
It is a business that is becoming increasingly popular. During the years 1988 to 1994, approximately 30 percent of American adults took a daily multivitamin. That number has now grown to more than 50 percent, with 10 percent taking more than five each day. The increase in daily vitamin consumption has been matched by a comparative increase in the size of the industry. Since 1994, the market for dietary supplements has grown from $4 billion a year to $24 billion in 2008.
In an effort to stay competitive as drug patents expire, many large pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, Bayer (BAYRY.PK), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), have acquired smaller dietary supplement companies. In order to fortify growth in its consumer health segment, Bayer announced its purchase of Schiff Nutrition (NYSE:SHF) for $1.2 billion on Monday.
However, the vitamin business is much different its pharmaceutical counterpart. According to an editorial written by Eva Lonn of McMaster University in Canada, vitamin manufacturers often make exaggerated claims about their product’s benefits because the regulation of dietary supplements is less strict than for other drugs. As recent studies have, for the most part, failed to find benefits from taking dietary supplements, many consumers have been left frustrated and confused, USA Today reported on Monday.
“Studies like the one published today show the importance of conducting rigorous tests in which patients are randomly assigned to one health intervention or another, with neither patients nor their doctors knowing which group they’re in,” Christopher Cannon, a Harvard professor of medicine, said to the publication.
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