The Role of Antioxidants and Vitamins in Preventing Aging, a Media Fact-checking

From the Lecture series: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

The Internet has turned into the first go-to source for getting information, including health recommendations. But how many people stop and think whether the advice comes from credible scientific sources or is just misinformation repeatedly copied by different sources? A true skeptic should. Here’s a practical example of verifying the references of such health recommendations. 

Tablet with news website on stack of newspapers. All contents are made up.
Health advice given in the media should be checked for validity. (Image: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock)

Media Advice on Age Prevention

Several articles from trusted websites recommend taking vitamins as a way to prevent aging. One of these sources was an MSN article titled “25 Secret Tips to Stop the Ageing Process”. It recommends vitamin E and C and an antioxidant tablet every day to reverse the aging process.

Health magazine also made the same recommendation. Now, the skeptic’s toolkit suggests a little research to see if these recommendations have any solid scientific base or not.

Oxygen radicals are a form of naturally occurring oxygen that can destroy our cells. The chemicals that can fight these oxygen radicals are called antioxidants. Aging is the result of the accumulation of oxygen radicals through time.

Good sources of antioxidants are vitamins C and E, so one could assume they might help prevent or slow down aging. But the question is if taking these supplements prevents people from feeling or looking older.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Do Antioxidants Prevent Aging?

Searching a query like “Do antioxidants prevent aging?” will lead to interesting results. Most results in the first few pages belong to websites that sell these supplements. They all invariably agree on the magical effect of antioxidants. But salesmanship is something that people should be aware of when trying to check the validity of the information. So, if a website tries to sell something, its data cannot be trusted because they are biased.

Medical examination and healthcare business graph
Advice given on sales websites might be biased. (Image: janews/Shutterstock)

Other sources like Women’s Health magazine also rave about the benefits of antioxidants. An article the magazine is titled “Antioxidants = Anti-Aging”. The long subtitle says, “Inside your body, an army of antioxidants is protecting you from the forces of aging and disease. Here’s why we’re huge fans of these stellar nutrients and how you can get more on your side.” This article doesn’t seem to be a trusted source since it just presents one side of the scale and says, “we’re huge fans.”

The article gives a long list of conditions that antioxidants help prevent or cure, from cancer and heart disease to cataracts and Alzheimer’s, and of course, wrinkles. But it doesn’t provide any citations for their claim.

The claims made in the article don’t appear to be sensible. A true skeptic would doubt if a single chemical could prevent this wide range of problems. The tone of the article is too enthusiastic to be trusted as a reliable source.

Another article found in the Google search results provided valuable information. Titled “Effects of Antioxidant Supplementation on the Aging Process – NCBI – NIH”, this article provided an authoritative review of the scientific studies on antioxidants published in scientific journals. It is a long article, but the conclusion provided the gist of it:  “In conclusion, current evidence does not allow to recommend antioxidant supplementation as a useful means to prevent age-related pathophysiological modifications and clinical conditions.” So, it is clear that the effects of these supplements in preventing or slowing the process of aging is not backed by substantial evidence.

Learn more about the media and the Internet.

Vitamins and Their Age-preventing Roles

Mixed medicine pills, tablets on wooden spoon on blue background.
Although antioxidants and vitamin supplements are touted as factors that prevent aging, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support these claims. (Image: Liza Kras/Shutterstock)

Along with antioxidants, regular vitamins have also been suggested in preventing aging. Searching a phrase like “Should I take multivitamins?” will generate millions of results. The first one is from “BerkeleyWellness.com, titled “Should You Still Take That Multi?” The articles in this website credit UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. So the report can be valid while it doesn’t guarantee that it is all correct.

According to the article, the results of two major studies, and many other smaller ones, indicate that multivitamins do not have any health benefits. They did not find any evidence to support the effectiveness of multivitamins. And if there is any effect, it is minor. It also points out that people with vitamin-deficient diets are more likely to benefit from these supplements.

One shortcoming of the article was that it did not provide any links to the text references they mentioned to back their claims.

Another article from Healthline.com also made the same point as the previous one. Titled “Do You Need to Take Vitamins?” it states that multivitamins are only beneficial to those people whose diets are lacking. This article gives links to several citations from the original published research.

Therefore, although antioxidants and vitamin supplements are touted as factors that prevent aging, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support these claims. And if people want to make sure a claim is valid, they have to search for articles that have enough references from reliable sources.

Learn more about selling disease

Common Questions about the Role of Antioxidants and Vitamins in Preventing Aging, a Media Fact-Checking

Q: What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are chemicals that protect the body against oxygen radicals. Oxygen radicals are a form of naturally occurring oxygen that can destroy our cells.

Q: Can antioxidant supplements prevent aging?

Antioxidants fight with oxygen radicals that damage our cells and lead to aging. But there is no concrete evidence that proves the anti-aging effect of antioxidant supplements.

Q: Do multivitamin supplements slow down aging?

According to research, multivitamin supplements do not have a significant influence on slowing down the process of aging. They are beneficial only for people who have deficient diets.

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