Vitamin E Supplements Provide Some Benefit to Immune System in Elderly: No adverse effects observed


May 13, 1997

According to a press release issued by the Journal of the American Medical Association, taking more than the daily requirement of vitamin E improves the immune system in the elderly. The press release discusses the clinical findings of Simin Nikbin Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D., from the Nutritional Immunology Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, Mass., and colleagues studied whether long-term supplementation with vitamin E enhances immunity in healthy elderly subjects.

The JAMA press release quotes the researchers, "Few interventions have been successful in changing the age-associated decline of the immune response. In the present study, we demonstrate that supplementation of healthy elderly with vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that inhibits prostaglandin E2 [a fatty acid] production, significantly improves certain clinically relevant in vivo [biological processes occurring within the body] indexes of cell-mediated immune response without an adverse effect in this population."

The study was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled intervention study that included 88 free-living, healthy subjects at least 65 years of age. Subjects were randomly assigned to a placebo group or to groups consuming 60, 200, or 800 milligrams (mg) per day of vitamin E for 235 days. The researchers found that subjects consuming 200 mg/day of vitamin E had a 65 percent increase in delayed-type hypersensitivity skin response (DTH) and a six-fold increase in the amount of antibody made in response to hepatitis B compared with placebo. The 200 mg/day group also had a significant increase in the amount of antibody produced in response to tetanus vaccine. No effect of vitamin E was found for diphtheria vaccine or on the total number of cells and proteins that fight infection.

The researchers noted that the U.S. recommended daily allowance for vitamin E, 30 milligrams/day, is based on studies in young subjects. They also observed that the optimal response in this study was detected in the 200 mg/day group.

The researchers concluded, "our results indicate that a level of vitamin E greater than currently recommended enhances certain clinically relevant in vivo indexes of T-cell-mediated function in healthy elderly persons. No adverse effects were observed with vitamin E supplementation." The researchers also concluded: "Since age-associated decline in immune response is associated with increased morbidity and mortality in the elderly and is widely observed, recommendations to increase the intake of vitamin E for elderly should be considered."

The study published in the May 7, 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association is entitled "Vitamin E Supplementation and In Vivo Immune Response in Healthy Elderly Subjects: A Randomized Controlled Trial" [JAMA. 1997;277:1380-1386] The study is authored by researchers Simin Nikbin Meydani, DVM, PhD; Mohsen Meydani, DVM, PhD; Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD; Lynette S. Leka; George Siber, MD; Robert Loszewski; Claudette Thompson; Marcos C. Pedrosa, MD; Richard D. Diamond, MD; and B. David Stollar, MD. The objective of the study was to determine whether long-term supplementation with vitamin E enhanced in vivo, clinically relevant measures of cell-mediated immunity in healthy elderly subjects.

The study results showed that supplementation with vitamin E for 4 months improved certain clinically relevant indexes of cell-mediated immunity in healthy elderly subjects. Subjects consuming 200 milligrams/day of vitamin E had a 65% increase in DTH and a 6-fold increase in antibody titer to hepatitis B compared with placebo (17% and 3-fold, respectively), 60-milligrams/day (41% and 3-fold, respectively), and 800-milligrams/day (49% and 2.5-fold, respectively) groups. The 200-milligram/day group also had a significant increase in antibody titer to tetanus vaccine. Subjects in the upper tertile of serum alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) concentration (>48.4 micromol/L [2.08 mg/dL]) after supplementation had higher antibody response to hepatitis B and DTH. Vitamin E supplementation had no effect on antibody titer to diphtheria and did not affect immunoglobulin levels or levels of T and B cells. No significant effect of vitamin E supplementation on autoantibody levels was observed.

USA Today's Steve Sternberg described the study in his report "Elderly people can bolster their resistance to infection by taking daily vitamin E supplements" in easier to understand terms. "The research team used several methods to measure the vitamin's effect. One test involved piercing the skin with needles tipped with proteins from germs such as staphylococcus, streptococcus and tetanus. People who took vitamin E developed a potent immune response; the others did not."

"In another test, people who took the vitamin churned out more protective antibodies when they were injected with hepatitis B and tetanus vaccines than those who did not take supplements. The supplements did not, however, intensify the immune response to diphtheria vaccine or expand the populations of white blood cells that fight off infection."

The Journal of the American Medical Association also included an editorial stressing that the era of nutrient supplements is here to stay. See the JAMA editorial which is also posted.