Taking a daily vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acid pill does not prevent older adults from getting sicker and frail, a study has found.

Scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts urged Americans over 50 on Tuesday to ditch the ‘unnecessary’ pills and focus instead on exercise and a Mediterranean diet, behind five years of research.

Marketers of herbal supplements — a $6.8 billion industry — argue that supplements can help reduce inflammation and age-related muscle loss, key risk factors for frailty. But the scientific evidence for this is small, recent papers suggest that it is of little use.

Geriatrician Dr Ariela Orkabi, who led the study, said today: ‘We need to ditch unnecessary drugs and promote healthy lifestyles instead.

‘Regular exercise and a Mediterranean diet are proven strategies to prevent frailty and should be encouraged for all older people.’

Shown above are the poor outcomes for five years in American adults over age 50 who took once-daily omega-3 fatty acid supplements (yellow dots) and no supplements (blue dots).  In frailty levels (shown by the Y axis) it shows that there is no difference between the groups, which means that the pills did not reduce the risk of frailty.

Shown above are the poor outcomes for five years in American adults over age 50 who took once-daily omega-3 fatty acid supplements (yellow dots) and no supplements (blue dots). In frailty levels (shown by the Y axis) it shows that there is no difference between the groups, which means that the pills did not reduce the risk of frailty.

This graph shows the frailty score (Y axis) of American adults over age 50 taking once-daily vitamin D3 tablets (yellow) for a study of people taking no pills (blue dots).  It showed no difference in weakness levels between the groups, meaning the pills had no effect on reducing weakness levels.

This graph shows the frailty score (Y axis) of American adults over age 50 taking once-daily vitamin D3 tablets (yellow) for a study of people taking no pills (blue dots). It showed no difference in weakness levels between the groups, meaning the pills had no effect on reducing weakness levels.

The omega-3 fatty acid supplements shown above are from the product line.

What should a balanced diet look like?

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, never whole grains, according to the NHS.

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, never whole grains, according to the NHS.

• Eat at least 5 servings of different fruits and vegetables each day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count.

• Foods based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains

• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat crackers, 2 slices of wholemeal bread and a large baked potato with skin on.

• Have some milk or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks) by choosing low-fat and low-sugar options

• Eat beans, grains, fish, eggs, meat, and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish each week, one of which should be fatty).

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat them in small quantities

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have 6 grams of salt per day and 20 grams of saturated fat for women or 30 grams per day for men.

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide

In the study – published today in the journal JAMA Network Open – Scientists reanalyzed data from the VITAL study, which investigated whether the supplements could fight heart disease or cancer.

They included 25,000 adults over the age of 50, stratified by gender and with a BMI of around 28 – putting them in the overweight group. They came from all 50 US states.

First, participants were divided into four groups: one quarter were given both vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids, one was given one supplement each, and one was given neither.

The participants were then asked to take the pills daily, which contained 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D and 840 micrograms of omega-3 fatty acids.

This was above the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended levels, which say that every American adult should get 800IU of vitamin D and up to 500mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day.

To measure frailty, they filled out questionnaires about their physical activity, mood and health status at the start of the study.

Participants will complete the survey again after six months, and then once a year for the next four years.

At the beginning of the study, 3,174 individuals (12.7 percent) were classified as frail.

But five years later, another 2,487 individuals (an additional 11.3 percent) had moved into poor classification.

The weak point – a measure of the condition – was calculated at the beginning of the study at 0.109. But it finally rose to 0.121.

There was no significant difference in the number of frailties between the groups that received the supplements, and those that did not.

The scientists concluded: ‘These results do not support regular supplementation of healthy community-dwelling adults with vitamin D3 or omega-3 fatty acids to prevent frailty.

‘[But] Regular exercise and a Mediterranean diet are proven strategies to prevent frailty and should be encouraged in older adults.’

Weakness can be caused by inflammation and malnutrition, some suggested supplements can help combat the problem.

The scientists added that the pills could still have a positive effect on people with major health problems. They are not studied in this article.

Dr Joan Manson, who led the landmark program and is based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said: ‘These new findings from VITAL are an important reminder that nutritional supplements are not miracle pills or elixirs of youth.’

Participants were recruited between November 2011 and March 2014, with the study continuing until December 2017. The data was reanalyzed last year by scientists in Massachusetts.

Industry statistics estimate that the omega-3 fatty acid market in North America is worth $0.62 billion annually, while the vitamin D3 market is worth $0.43 billion.

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