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Vitamin E helps maintain physical function in the elderly

Healthy Habits of the Immortals

“According to this, if I’m highly fit, I’m 70 percent less likely to die. Let’s hear it for immortality!”

That note was in an e-mail sent to me by HSI researcher Michele Cagan, who also writes the HSI On the Spot blog. Michele’s comment addressed this sentence from an Associated Press article: “The Veterans Affairs researchers found that the ‘highly fit’ men in the study had half the risk of death as those who were the least fit. Being ‘very highly fit’ cut the risk even more, by 70 percent.”

The last I heard, our chance of dying is pretty uniform at 100 percent, no matter how highly fit we may be. So it’s safe to assume that the AP article was talking about the risk of premature death.

If you can’t be immortal, the next best thing is a healthy longevity, and the Veterans Affairs study confirms that a little daily exercise will help that effort.

Another recent study from Yale University School of Medicine reveals what appears to be the primary nutritional element needed to keep your body in good working order for at least a century.

Saying “no” to decline

As the Yale team noted in a January issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, their objective was to find out if low blood levels of nutrients might be associated with physical function decline in older subjects.


  • Researchers recruited nearly 700 subjects who were 65 or older
  • Blood samples from each subject were tested for levels of folate, and vitamins B6, B12, D, and E
  • The physical condition of each subject was assessed with the Short Physical Performance Battery (SPPB), a standardized tool for evaluating lower extremity function in older people
  • These same assessments were conducted again with each subject three years later
  • Of the five nutrients tested, only low levels of vitamin E were linked with a decline in physical function

The researchers noted that their study doesn’t establish vitamin E deficiency as a specific cause of physical function decline. But they suggested that insufficient vitamin E might create an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants. The resulting oxidative stress might prompt DNA, muscle, and neuronal impairment.

Heart protection

The Yale team notes that Clinical trials should be mounted to determine if optimal vitamin E levels might reduce functional decline and the onset of disability in older people.

Actually, we already have a few trials that show just how important it is to maintain adequate E levels as we age.

In 2005 I told you about a Brigham and Women’s Hospital study in which nearly 40,000 women over the age of 45 were divided into three groups and assigned to take either 600 IU of vitamin E each day, a low dose aspirin, or a placebo. After 10 years, results showed that women in the vitamin E group over the age of 65 had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to the other two groups. Heart attack risk was also lowered by nearly 35 percent in this group.

And in the e-Alert “Killer Vitamin” (9/13/08) I told you about another intervention study that recruited more than 600 subjects over the age of 65. For one year, each subject received either 200 IU of vitamin E daily or a placebo. The results: Vitamin E supplements had a preventive effect on upper respiratory infections. Subjects who took E supplements had a 20 percent reduced risk of coming down with a common cold.

HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., recommends 400 IU of vitamin E daily (ideally as d- alpha or mixed tocopherols), along with 200 micrograms of selenium. Dr. Spreen: “Both selenium and vitamin E are intimately associated with stimulation of the part of the immune system dealing with production of immunoglobulins.” The immune system uses immunoglobulins (or antibodies) to identify and neutralize viruses and bacteria.

Talk to your doctor before adding an E supplement or selenium to your daily regimen. Meanwhile, you can get vitamin E from a variety of food sources, including eggs, liver, nuts and seeds, spinach, broccoli, peaches, wheat germ, and vegetable oils.

“Serum Micronutrient Concentrations and Decline in Physical Function Among Older Persons” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 299, No. 3, 1/23/08,