Helsinki, Finland—Could a supplement available on drugstore shelves help prevent pneumonia in elderly men after they’ve quit smoking?

A new Finnish study suggests that administration of 50 mg per day of vitamin E decreased the risk of pneumonia in elderly male smokers by 72% after they quit smoking. The results were published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging.

For the review, Harri Hemila, MD, PhD, of the University of Helsinki, analyzed the data of a randomized trial—the Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention (ATBC) study—which was conducted in Finland between 1985 and 1993 and included male smokers aged from 50 to 69 years.

Results indicate that, among 2,216 participants who smoked 5 to 19 cigarettes per day at baseline and exercised at leisure time, vitamin E supplementation reduced the incidence of pneumonia by 69% and, that in that subgroup, vitamin E prevented pneumonia in 12.9% of participants by the age of 74 years.

Among 5,253 participants who smoked 20 or more cigarettes per day at baseline or did not exercise, the incidence of pneumonia was 14% lower in the vitamin E participants. The vitamin did not have a significant effect on participants who smoked heavily or did not exercise, according to the report.

Interestingly, according to Hemila, the age when the participant had started to smoke significantly modified the effect of vitamin E on pneumonia. Vitamin E decreased the risk of pneumonia by 35% in 7,469 participants who had started smoking at a later age, 21 years or older, but had no apparent effect on pneumonia for those who had started to smoke at a younger age.

Hemila cautioned that since participants of the ATBC study had mostly been born in the 1920s and 1930s, and lived through the World War II years, “even though the 72% decrease in pneumonia risk with vitamin E in ATBC participants who quit smoking may be a real effect, it should not be generalized to current elderly males in Western countries.

“Further research on vitamin E in nonsmoking elderly males is warranted,” he emphasized.

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