Vitamin E may ward off physical decline in elderly

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vitamin E may help elderly people keep their vim and vigor, researchers said on Tuesday.

An elderly woman adjusts her glasses as she votes at a polling station in Mitrovica in Kosovo, January 20, 2008. Vitamin E may help elderly people keep their vim and vigor, researchers said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The researchers measured levels of certain vitamins in the blood of 698 people ages 65 and up in Italy, and then used three tests -- a short walk, balance and standing up from a seated position -- to gauge their physical functioning.

They found that volunteers with lower levels of vitamin E performed worse on these physical tests than those with higher levels of the vitamin.

Levels of the other vitamins -- folate, B-6, B-12 and D -- did not seem to affect the tests, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“We consistently found that a low concentration of vitamin E was associated with subsequent decline in physical function,” researchers led by Benedetta Bartali of Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, wrote.

Poor nutrition may play a role in leading elderly people to become physically disabled, but there had been little strong evidence backing up this notion, the researchers said.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant, meaning it can protect tissue from damage caused by unstable substances called free radicals that can harm cells, tissues and organs. It is also involved in the formation of red blood cells.

“Our study, however, was not aimed at identifying possible pathways by which low levels of vitamin E may contribute to decline in physical function,” Bartali said by e-mail.

Scientists have been examining the role vitamin E may play in preventing or treating certain health conditions including cancer and heart disease.

Vitamin E can be found in foods including wheat germ, corn nuts and seeds, olives, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and asparagus, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils.

But some research has indicated very high amounts of vitamin E can be harmful, raising one’s overall risk of death.

The researchers in the current study said future studies should try to determine whether there is an optimal level of vitamin E for reducing physical functional decline and the onset of disability in the elderly.

Study participants, who came from two municipalities close to Florence, were examined initially from 1998 to 2000 and then tracked for three years. Just one participant was taking a vitamin E supplement, the researchers said.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Todd Eastham