Boston Loading up on vitamin E and other antioxidants is probably worthless for heart patients and may even interfere with widely used cholesterol-lowering drugs, a study found.
Antioxidant nutrients, especially vitamin E, were widely recommended a few years ago as a promising way of keeping the heart healthy. However, several recent large studies that tested the idea failed to show any benefit, and now a new one raises the possibility that the pills might even be harmful for some.
The latest study is relatively small and leaves some questions unanswered. Nevertheless, it is one more bit of discouraging news for what once seemed like a cheap, simple way of warding off heart trouble.
The study suggests that antioxidants may blunt the benefits of statins and niacin, which are used to lower LDL, the bad form of cholesterol, and raise HDL, the good kind of cholesterol that keeps the arteries flowing smoothly.
Antioxidants are "not proven to be of any value. In fact, they interfere," said Dr. B. Greg Brown of the University of Washington.
Statins sold under such brand names as Zocor, Pravachol, Lipitor, Mevacor and Lescol are taken by millions of Americans and are recommended for millions more.
Antioxidants theoretically protect the heart's arteries by blocking the damaging effects of oxygen. The approach works in animals, and studies show that healthy people who eat vitamin-rich food as well as take some antioxidant supplements seem to have less heart disease.
However, only one major study set up to rigorously test the theory in people who already have heart disease has shown a benefit. Several others including a British study of 20,000 patients released earlier this month have found no effect at all.
Brown's research tested the effects of a combination of Zocor and niacin, which is vitamin B3 but not an antioxidant. Some also got large doses of four antioxidants vitamins E and C, beta carotene and the trace element selenium.
The latest results of the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, were published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
After three years, just 3 percent of the people getting Zocor plus niacin suffered new heart attacks or strokes, had died, or needed bypass surgery or angioplasty. In comparison, 14 percent of those who added antioxidants to their drugs had these bad outcomes.
Buildups in the patients' arteries actually shrank slightly in the patients on Zocor and niacin, while they increased minimally in those who also took antioxidants.