Wouldn't it be nice if you could take a pill that would help protect you against serious ailments, including cancer and heart disease?

You can. Dozens of studies have shown that taking a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement is one of the simplest and best ways to help fight age-related disease. But it has to be the right multi to get the job done. Unfortunately, only one in three American adults consistently takes a multivitamin.

To learn more, we spoke with Bruce Ames, PhD, a renowned biochemist who studies the effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies on health...


There's no question that a balanced diet consisting of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, fish, dairy and lean meats is our best source of the nearly 40 vitamins, fatty acids, minerals and amino acids that are essential to human health.

While most Americans consume enough of these micronutrients to avoid acute deficiency diseases, such as scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) or anemia (iron deficiency), research shows that up to 10% of us consume less than half of the recommended levels of each key micronutrient—a dangerously low level. Also...

  • Up to 25% of premenopausal American women consume less than half of the recommended intake of iron.
  • More than half of us aren't getting enough magnesium or calcium.
  • Up to 80% of American adults with darker skin (blacks, people from India and some Hispanics)—particularly those who live in northern states, where sun exposure tends to be limited—are deficient in vitamin D. Fair-skinned people who don't get much sun exposure and don't get vitamin D from a supplement also are at risk.

These nutritional deficiencies are serious threats to our health—on par with smoking or obesity. Even a marginal deficiency of only one key nutrient can significantly change our cells in a way that can lead to cancer and other serious diseases.


At our laboratory at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, California, we study nutritional deficiencies in human cells by limiting vitamins or minerals and examining how the cells respond.

Our findings: When cells are grown so that one of the vitamins (biotin or B-O or minerals (iron, zinc, magnesium or copper is limited, the cells' chromosomes undergo significant damage, changes that are linked to the development of cancer.

An abundance of research shows that inadequate levels of folic acid are linked to breast, pancreatic and colon cancers...low intakes of vitamin B-5 are implicated in colorectal cancer...insufficient vitamin D increases the risk for colorectal cancer and may double the risk for prostate cancer...low zinc appears to heighten the risk for esophageal cancer...and low magnesium increases colorectal cancer risk.

If this isn't reason enough to get your daily vitamins and minerals, there's even more evidence. Nutrient deficiencies appear to disrupt the normal functioning of mitochondria, the tiny "engines" inside our cells that convert fuel (starches and fats) into energy. This process normally produces a small number of "free radicals," oxidized molecules that contribute to cellular aging.

However, when zinc, iron, copper, biotin or other key nutrients are in short supply, we've observed that mitochondria mass-produce free radicals. In the body, this may lead to premature aging and a raft of degenerative diseases, affecting everything from our hearts and brains to our bones.

Antioxidant nutrients may help stave off the damage, but supplying the missing nutrient is the key. In a recent Johns Hopkins University study, older people taking vitamins E and C were found to be less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. In studies at The Cooper Institute in Dallas, patients who took multivitamins for six months had significantly lower blood levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for cardiovascular disease.


A multivitamin/mineral is a convenient way to fill in any nutritional gaps in your diet. An expensive brand-name supplement isn't necessary. I recently bought a year's supply for about $10 at one of the big national discount stores.

Just be sure to choose a multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains close to 100% of the Daily Value (recommended daily intake) of most vitamins and minerals.

Men and women aged 50 and older who eat some red meat should choose an iron-free formulation, since most adults get sufficient amounts of this mineral in their food. Premenopausal women, who lose iron through menstruation, should choose a supplement with iron.

Be cautious about supplements providing "megadoses" (five to 10 times the recommended daily intake) of specific vitamins and/or minerals. In my opinion, there is little scientific evidence showing that the use of more than the recommended daily intake of any nutrient is beneficial for the general public (though future studies may change that). 'What's more, certain vitamins, especially vitamin A, and many of the minerals, including iron, manganese and selenium, are toxic at high doses.

Some manufacturers are now advertising multivitamins that offer a "bonus" ingredient—for example, the herb ginkgo to bolster memory...or the sugar-cane derivative policosanol to lower cholesterol. These combination products are generally safe, but most lack sufficient research showing that they're actually any better for you—or whether the added benefits are worth the additional costs. Talk to your doctor before starting a multivitamin with added ingredients, especially if you're taking medications.

Important: A multivitamin should be taken with food to help promote the body's absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins D and E.


In addition to a basic multivitamin, consider a calcium/magnesium supplement. Because calcium and magnesium are bulky, most multivitamin/ mineral supplements contain no more than a small percentage of the recommended daily intake (otherwise the pills would be too big to swallow). Look for a product that offers a 2:1. ratio of calcium to magnesium—your body can't effectively use one without the other. And be sure your multivitamin contains 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D to aid absorption of these minerals.

Unless you eat three meals of cold-water fish (such as salmon, halibut, mackerel) weekly, I advise taking a fish-oil supplement with omega- 3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids promote brain and heart health.

If you feel your energy or cognition slumping, try taking two lesser-known nutrients—acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) and lipoic acid (tA). In animal studies, these biochemicals lower oxidant levels caused by aging and improve physical and mental performance. Twenty-four clinical trials have shown ALC and LA to be safe.

Good choice: The supplement Juvenon aruu. juuenon.coz) contains both ALC and LA.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in