It's not that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent over the years on cancer research has been a complete waste, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.
In this case, researchers seem to have confirmed what science has known for quite some time: that a well-balanced diet is the "secret" to better health.
S. Diddy / Esther Thomas
Researchers led by a team from the University of Minnesota found that those who took multivitamins, folic acid, copper, vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium and iron died at higher rates than those who did not take supplements.
A just-released study of nearly 15,000 men over the age of 50 suggests that taking a daily supplemental multivitamin could reduce rates of cancer by about eight percent. That may not sound like much, but it's enough of a risk reduction to make it well worth your while to pop a One-A-Day or Centrum.
"Despite the lack of definitive trial data regarding the benefits of multivitamins in the prevention of chronic disease, including cancer, many men and women take them for precisely this reason," said Dr. Michael Gaziano, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Our study shows a modest but significant benefit in cancer prevention."
Differences seen over past studies
The study did not examine men and women under the age of 50, so it wasn't clear whether that age group would see similar benefits. Then again, cancer generally afflicts older adults.
Previous large-study research, including a 180,000-patient effort begun in 1992 and the Women's Health Initiative Study of 160,000 women that was published in 2009, discovered that multivitamins had little-to-no effect on cancer risk, ABC News reported.
"In fact, a 2010 Swedish study of 35,000 women who reported using multivitamins had an increased risk of breast cancer," the news affiliate said.
What was different this time around, then?
First of all, the new study assigned men to a couple of groups randomly - one which took a daily
Centrum Silver capsule while the other took a placebo. In previous studies, researchers used an observational technique, which means the participants were not compared to a group taking placebos.
Secondly, men who were 65 years of age or older, on average, were followed over 11 years; this involved a longer follow-up than in earlier studies and included sufficient time for cancer to develop.
Lastly, the earlier trial used a multivitamin, whose aim is to fill in nutritional gaps in a person's diet. Other trials have only tested single vitamins - A, E, or D - in large doses, which is considerably different from the way people normally get the kinds of vitamins and minerals they need from foods.
"The reduction in total cancer risk in [the study] argues that the broader combination of low-dose vitamins and minerals contained in the [Centrum Silver] multivitamin, rather than an emphasis on previously tested high-dose vitamins and mineral trials, may be paramount for cancer prevention," said Gaziano.
Poor dietary habits make a multivitamin necessary
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Preventative Research Center, who was not involved in the study, noted that previous studies involving single vitamins have shown them to be ineffective.
"Clearly the notion of megadoses of isolated nutrients has been proven wrong again and again," he said. "Maybe the active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli."
If the multivitamin approach is the answer, then why not simply recommend that people eat a mix of foods that provide all of the vitamins necessary for a proper diet? Wouldn't that also serve to reduce cancer rates?
Researchers admit the problem is that only a small fraction of the population - 1.5 percent - gets the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, says Katz.
"Clearly...taking a multivitamin is easy; changing dietary patterns is hard," he said.
According to a government study released last year, more Americans are taking daily vitamin supplements than ever before. More than half take some sort of dietary supplement, the study by the National Center for Health Statistics found.
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