In 2018, sales in the U.S. supplement market had reached $124.8 billion and are expected to top $210.3 billion by 2026.1 While that sounds like a lot of money, and it is, it pales in comparison to health care spending for prescription drugs.
In 2016, the cost of health care reached $3.3 trillion, of which $329 billion was on prescription drugs.2 The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that in the next decade, the money that’s spent on prescription drugs will outpace that of other types of health care spending.3
The projected spending on retail prescription drugs matches the consistent rise in chronic diseases, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. But, as spending on medications rises, more adults are also spending money on preventive care, such as vitamin supplements.
In one study, it was reported that in 2019, younger people who bought vitamins and supplements spent an average of $62.73 per trip on the products whereas people who grew up during the Great Depression spent $129.58.4
Multivitamins and Minerals in Older Adults Shortened Illness
In the 20th year that the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) conducted their annual consumer survey on dietary supplements, 77% of the respondents said that they took supplements.5 Vice president of communications Nancy Weindruch commented on the results, saying:
“While the industry continues to innovate, there is no denying that these regulated products have become mainstream. More than three quarters of Americans are taking dietary supplements each year — a crystal clear trend that serves as an indicator of the vital role supplementation plays in their overall health and wellness regimens.”
To test the hypothesis that using a multivitamin and mineral supplement may support immune function in older adults,6 a research team from Oregon State University recruited 42 healthy individuals ages 55 to 75.7 The interventional study was designed to measure the effect that a multivitamin with minerals may have on immune system indicators.8
Before and after the intervention, the researchers took samples to measure the amount of minerals and vitamins in the participants’ blood as well as immune function and status. The participants were given a questionnaire in which they reported details of their health during the trial.
The data showed that the same percentage of people in each group experienced symptoms of illness or sickness, but those who took the supplement averaged three days with symptoms as compared to more than six days by members of the group taking a placebo.
Adrian Gombart from Linus Pauling Institute at the University of Oregon was a principal investigator in the study. He commented on the results that showed older adults may benefit from a multivitamin and mineral supplement, saying:9
“The observed illness differences were striking. While the study was limited to self-reported illness data and we did not design the study to answer this question, the observed differences suggest that additional larger studies designed for these outcomes are warranted — and, frankly, overdue.”
Vitamin Deficiencies Contribute to Age-Related Decline
Vitamins and minerals are also called micronutrients because they’re only required in small amounts. Your body cannot produce them and deficiencies can introduce very serious problems.
According to data from UNICEF, more than 200 million children younger than age 5 are either undernourished or overweight.10 The CDC reports that at least half of all children around the world in that age group suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.11
The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million preschool children are deficient in vitamin A, which contributes to up to 500,000 children becoming blind every year.12 Within 12 months of losing their eyesight, up to half of them will die.
The authors of one literature review write that vitamin deficiencies are a major trigger for chronic diseases worldwide. Some stages in life increase the risk for deficiency, including childhood, adolescence and old age.13
The Oregon State University researchers wrote that the risks of deficiency “contribute to age-related immune system deficiencies” and that among adults in North America and Europe, “more than one-third of older adults are deficient in at least one micronutrient, often more than one.”14 Gombart commented on the challenges people face with micronutrient deficiency:15,16
“That likely contributes to a decline in the immune system, most often characterized by increased levels of inflammation, reduced innate immune function and reduced T-cell function.
Since multiple nutrients support immune function, older adults often benefit from multivitamin and mineral supplements. These are readily available, inexpensive and generally regarded as safe.
Supplementation was associated with significantly increased circulating levels of zinc and vitamin C, and with illness symptoms that were less severe and shorter lasting. This supports findings that stretch back decades, even to the days of Linus Pauling’s work with vitamin C.
Our results suggest more and better designed research studies are needed to explore the positive role multivitamin and mineral supplementation might play in bolstering the immune system of older adults.”
Multivitamins May Help Fill Nutritional Gaps
In a survey done in 2015 on behalf of CRN, it was found that the vast majority of those they interviewed understood that multivitamins and Vitamin D supplements help fill the gaps in their daily diet but should not be used as a substitute for a nutrient-rich diet.17
More than 2,000 U.S. adults were asked questions to measure their understanding of multivitamins, vitamin D and calcium supplements. An almost equal percentage understood the roles that calcium and vitamin D play in bone health and ways in which multivitamins and mineral supplements can help fill nutritional gaps that are not addressed by their diet.
That percentage was an impressive 87% and 88%. CRN consultant Annette Dickinson, Ph.D., was one of the researchers. She commented on the results of data from other surveys in a press release, saying:18
“Surveys find that dietary supplement users tend to have better diets and adopt other healthy habits — suggesting that they view supplements as just one strategy in an array of health habits to help ensure wellness.”
The authors of a 2017 study examined data from 10,698 adults in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that people who were using a multivitamin and mineral supplement had a lower prevalence of vitamin inadequacy in 15 out of 17 of the micronutrients analyzed.19
Using the supplement for greater than or equal to 21 out of 30 days in the month nearly eliminated inadequacies in the micronutrients that were analyzed and significantly lowered the ratio of deficiency for all biomarkers except iron. Nutrients not affected by taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement included calcium, magnesium and vitamin D.
The researchers concluded that the supplements decreased nutritional inadequacies and lowered the risk of deficiencies. Carrie Ruxton, Ph.D., from the Health and Food Supplements Information Service, commented on the results of this study:20
“This study is really important in setting the record straight on the value of multivitamins and minerals. We know these nutrients are key to our health and wellbeing and low levels have been shown to have negative health impacts.
Unfortunately, all too often it is said that you can get all the nutrition you need from a healthy, balanced diet. But this ignores how most people actually eat. A lot of people don’t consume the full-spectrum of micronutrients needed to support optimum health.”
In addition to the commentary that most people do not eat the necessary micronutrients, it’s important to recognize that while whole foods are the healthier option, the micronutrients in the food are dependent on the air and soil in which they are grown.21,22
Vitamins Help Support Heart Health and More
In one study of 8,678 adults, researchers sought to determine the effect multivitamin and mineral supplements may have on cardiovascular health and mortality in women. The data were drawn from a nationally representative sample. The initial results showed no association between heart disease mortality and those taking multivitamin and mineral supplements.
However, once the data were classified by the length of time the supplements had been used, the researchers found people who had taken the supplements for three years or more had a reduction in risk of mortality from CVD. The researchers wrote that these results were consistent “with the one available RCT [random controlled trial] in men, indicating no relation with MVM use and CVD mortality.”
The results of the study do not establish a causal (cause-and-effect) relationship, however. In other words, it does not prove that taking a multivitamin with a mineral supplement will reduce the risk of heart disease mortality. Many researchers, such as Dickinson, also consider that people who consistently take multivitamins often tend to have a healthier lifestyle, which could account for the benefits of taking supplements.
In situations of vitamin insufficiency, when a person has low levels but not low enough to trigger symptoms of deficiency, several health conditions can be ameliorated with supplements, such as:
- Vitamin D to address depression23
- Vitamin A to contribute to the prevention of blindness24
- Vitamin C to power the body’s response to connective tissue defects25
- Vitamin B12 to reduce the symptoms of dementia26
Use Supplements With a Healthy Diet
If multivitamins and mineral supplements are used, they must be taken in combination with a healthy diet because they can never replace poor nutrition from the daily intake of highly processed foods. While it’s important to choose a quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, the process of identifying one may not be straightforward. Look for a manufacturer that has checks and balances in place to ensure the quality of the product.
Some manufacturers agree to voluntary certification and testing by ConsumerLab.com, NSF International or U.S. Pharmacopoeia. These organizations help that ensure strict standards of quality are met by examining and testing the product throughout the process of production.
As with most products, vitamins have a shelf life, so check the expiration dates before using them and store them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Choose a well-respected company and a product that is consistently evaluated and tested to be sure you’re getting exactly what’s on the label.