You can’t stroll the exhibit hall of the age management medicine conferences where I sometimes lecture without running into many booths for Vitamin companies selling antioxidants. The general concept is that since oxidation is associated with aging, then anti-oxidants will make you age less (and presumably live longer). However, do we really know that taking these supplements extends life span? A new study suggests that this doesn’t happen.
The anti-oxidant story begins when plants fist began to adapt to life on land in what was back then, a new oxygen rich environment. To adapt out of the water, they began to produce vitamin C and E as well as polyphenols. The first common sense association with aging was the observation that when fatty food went “rancid” it was really just being oxidized. The discovery that vitamin C and E could reduce this oxidation and that they played similar roles in the body led to a new field of anti-oxidant study. Linus Pauling, a two time Nobel laureate, popularized the message that vitamin C could stave off cancer because of it’s anti-oxidant properties. This was followed by the observation that people who ate more fruits and vegetables (which are rich in anti-oxidants), really did seem to have less cancer.
The whole antioxidant and cancer story took a dark turn in the 80s and 90s, which relates to the new study of whether antioxidants can extend life span. A large study in Finland reported back then that rather than lower cancer rates in almost 30,000 male smokers taking Vitamin E and A, the supplements seemed to increase cancer rates by 18%! A similar US study that was ongoing at the same time with higher anti-oxidant doses was halted early due to increased cancer rates. This study showed that participants who took beta-carotene and Vitamin A supplements had a 28% higher rate of lung cancer. They also had 26% more fatal heart related events and died 17% more often than participants who didn’t take the supplements! Why were these results so different than those seen in animals and in healthy people? The answer may be that the antioxidants worked too well by allowing smoking related cancer cells to avoid pre-programmed cell death and live on to multiply.
This now brings us to this new study of anti-oxidants and mortality in a retirement community. This huge 30+ year study of retirees in California monitored food intake and supplement consumption via questionnaires. The focus was on whether antioxidant foods or supplements extended life span. In the end, this questionnaire based study showed that neither dietary nor supplement consumption of the anti-oxidant vitamins A. C, and E extended lifespan. They did see an increase in mortality among supplement users, but they also saw that this was due to the fact that sicker retirees tended to take more supplements (the “better late than never” philosophy).
The upshot? We really don’t have any good data that the take antioxidants live longer premise is valid. While I can’t comment on the bevy of antioxidants now being touted as miracle anti-aging supplements, the big antioxidants that are now well tested, don’t seem to allow us to cheat death. They may help our cells live a bit longer, but as the Finish and U.S. studies suggested, that can be a two edged sword!