vitamin e SUPPLEMENTS

Cancer risk may not change, but some hearts may gain.

* THE QUESTION In a test-tube environment, vitamin E shields cells from the destruction caused by molecules known as free radicals. This has fueled hope that vitamin E supplements would act similarly in the human body, staving off heart disease and cancer. Put to the test of a long-term, high-quality medical study, does this belief hold true?

* THIS STUDY randomly assigned 39,876 healthy women 45 years of age and older to take vitamin E (600 international units) or a placebo every other day for about 10 years. Occurrence of cancer was virtually the same in the vitamin E and placebo groups (1,437 cases vs. 1,428). Taking vitamin E did not affect the frequency of heart attacks or strokes but did result in 24 percent fewer deaths from cardiovascular causes. Among women 65 and older, those who took vitamin E had 34 percent fewer heart attacks and 49 percent fewer cardiovascular deaths than the placebo group. The stroke rate was similar among older women in both groups. Overall, the researchers said their study "does not support recommending vitamin E supplementation" to prevent cancer or cardiovascular disease among healthy women.

* WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? Women middle-aged and older.

* CAVEATS An earlier study, based on observation rather than experimentation, had indicated that high doses of vitamin E (400 IU or greater) may increase the risk of death; this study did not find a difference in deaths overall between those who did and did not take vitamin E. About half of the participants also took low doses of aspirin; the authors determined this did not affect the results. Participants in the study were considered at very low risk for heart disease; whether the findings would apply to women at higher risk remains unclear.

* FIND THIS STUDY July 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association; abstract available online at www.jama.com.

* LEARN MORE ABOUT vitamin E supplements at http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets and www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource.

FIBROMYALGIA

Acupuncture may do no more than sham treatment.

* THE QUESTION Alleviating the chronic pain and tenderness of fibromyalgia can be difficult. A long list of drugs has been used, with varied success, but none has been approved to treat it. Most people with the disorder turn at some point to complementary or alternative medicines. Might acupuncture offer relief?

* THIS STUDY randomly assigned 100 adults with fibromyalgia, mostly women, to twice-weekly acupuncture treatments designed for the disorder or one of three alternatives: treatment with the needles inserted at acupuncture points for an unrelated condition; with needling at spots that are not true acupuncture points; or a simulated acupuncture that mimics the feeling of needle insertion and withdrawal but does not pierce the skin. None of the participants had tried acupuncture previously. After about three months, all groups rated their pain as somewhat improved, but those who had gotten true acupuncture for fibromyalgia reported no better pain relief than those who had fake treatments.

* WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? Anyone with fibromyalgia. The disorder can affect children and men, but more than 80 percent of those who have it are women.

* CAVEATS Findings were based on individuals' perceptions of pain and may have been affected by their continued use of other treatments. More than a third of the participants reported discomfort from the needling; this side effect was especially high in the two actual acupuncture groups. The study was fairly small, with about 25 people per group. Results may not necessarily be duplicated by acupuncture practitioners of different skill levels.

* FIND THIS STUDY July 5 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine; abstract available online at www.annals.org.

* LEARN MORE ABOUT fibromyalgia at http://fmaware.org and www.arthritis.org.

FALLING

Chinese exercise form may aid balance in older people.

* THE QUESTION The older people get, the more likely they are to fall and the greater the chance that falls will result in injury or disability. To stem this chain of events, might it help to practice tai chi -- a series of slow, gentle, continuous movements that has been used in China for its health benefits for centuries?

* THIS STUDY involved 59 people over 60 years old who were considered prone to falls. Twenty-nine were assigned to take part in a tai chi exercise program and 30 were advised to continue their ordinary routines, without participating in regular exercise classes. The tai chi group exercised for 35 minutes three times a week for 12 weeks. During this time, nine people in the tai chi group (31 percent) experienced a fall, compared with 15 of the non-exercisers (50 percent). Tests given at the end of the study showed improved physical fitness for the exercisers, who had stronger knee and ankle muscles and were more flexible and mobile than the others. They also had better balance than the non-exercise group and could walk a short distance in 25 percent less time than at the start of the study, whereas the non-exercisers took 14 percent longer.

* WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? Older people. Balance, strength, coordination and eyesight all change as people age, contributing to falls.

* CAVEATS The study did not follow standard randomization procedures: The researchers assigned an entire group of people to one of the two treatment options rather than randomly assigning individuals. The study involved a small number of participants.

* FIND THIS STUDY July issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing; abstract available online at www.journalofadvancednursing.com.

* LEARN MORE ABOUT preventing falls at www.mayoclinic.com and www.nia.nih.gov.

-- Linda Searing

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.