September is Healthy Aging Month and an excuse to consider whether vitamin pill popping – and other oral supplements touted to promote health – is really good for our health. As we get older, we become increasingly concerned about vitamin deficiencies and believe that supplementation is necessary to age healthfully. However, there is an increasing body of research that suggests supplements may do more harm than good.

Omega-3 pills and antioxidants are widely thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. My doctor prescribed me vitamin D and B12 and many women take calcium for strong bones. But recent evidence casts doubt on whether those supplements are as safe or effective as assumed.

A study recently published in New England Journal of Medicine nixed the widely held view that fish-oil pills help prevent cardiovascular disease. Over six years, 12,500 people with diabetes or prediabetes and a high risk of heart attack or stroke were studied and it turned out that there was no difference in the death rate from cardiovascular disease or other outcomes between those given a 1-gram fish-oil pill every day and those given a placebo.

Meanwhile, calcium supplements were found by German and Swiss researchers who followed almost 24,000 adults for an average of 11 years to be potentially more harmful than helpful. They found that regular users of calcium supplements had an 86% increased heart-attack risk compared with those who didn’t use supplements, as reported in the June 2012 issue of the journal Heart.

Scientists accidentally discovered that mega doses of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E can increase the risk of genetic abnormalities in cells, which may actually lead to cancer rather than prevent it. The researchers from the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute were quick to point out that the risk of cancer is associated with antioxidant supplements and not the antioxidants found naturally in foods.

Earlier research on the impact of antioxidants on cancer have been mixed. In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, for example, scientists could not find any benefits in the prevention of cancer from taking vitamin C, E, or beta-carotene supplements.

The Mayo Clinic has also conducted a systematic review of available research and concluded that, overall, antioxidant supplementation did not reduce the risk of cancer. Beta carotene supplements actually found to increase the risk of smoking-related cancers, as well as cancer mortality, and thus should be avoided, especially by tobacco users. Vitamin E was neither beneficial nor harmful. Selenium supplementation was found to lower the risk of cancer in men, but not in women.

Of even more concern is the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which analyzed data on 38,772 women with an average age 61.6. The study followed them for nearly 20 years from 1986 and 2004 and concluded that calcium supplements, multivitamins and supplements of vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, copper and especially iron were all associated with greater risk of dying.

Not long ago, I looked at supplements and skincare and couldn’t find much to substantiate taking astaxanthin or pine bark supplements. Sea buckthorn came out a bit better.

What scientists do agree on is that food high in antioxidants is hugely beneficial. And in a future article, I’ll show you that right from your store cupboard or fridge it isn’t difficult to find foods that will help you age healthily and beautifully.