Vitamin E May Protect the Lungs

SUNDAY, May 16 (Health.com) — People who take vitamin E supplements regularly for years—whether they are smokers or nonsmokers—may lower their risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the lung condition that is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and is often, but not always, caused by smoking.

While the risk reduction is relatively small, 10%, COPD is a common and life-threatening condition in which a decline in lung function can be slowed down but not reversed. COPD symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue.

“The effect appears to be modest. But for something for which there isn’t really any effective therapy and tends to be a degenerative condition, anything that would reduce the risk even somewhat is not an insubstantial benefit,” says Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston who was not involved in the study.

The research, from the government-funded Women’s Health Study, included 39,876 women 45 years and older who were free of COPD before they were randomly assigned to take a placebo, vitamin E supplements (600 IU every other day) or aspirin (100 mg per day), either alone or in combination. At the end of 10 years, 760 of the 19,937 women who took vitamin E alone or with aspirin developed COPD compared with 846 of the 19,939 who took a placebo or aspirin alone—a 10% risk reduction. Vitamin E did not lower the risk of asthma, a condition associated with a higher risk of COPD.

The researchers took into account factors such as cigarette smoking and age, which can affect COPD risk. The study, conducted by Cornell University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers, is to be presented this week at the annual American Thoracic Society meeting in New Orleans.

The idea that vitamin E can reduce the risk of developing COPD is “biologically plausible,” says Yvonne Kelly, PhD, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London. Experts believe vitamins A, C, and E—the so-called ACE antioxidants—combat oxidative stress in the lungs that can lead to COPD.