Background: Antioxidant supplementation is thought to improve immunity and thereby reduce infectious morbidity. However, few large trials in elderly people have been conducted that include end points for clinical variables.
Objective: To determine the effects of long-term daily supplementation with trace elements (zinc sulfate and selenium sulfide) or vitamins (beta carotene, ascorbic acid, and vitamin E) on immunity and the incidence of infections in institutionalized elderly people.
Methods: This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled intervention study included 725 institutionalized elderly patients (>65 years) from 25 geriatric centers in France. Patients received an oral daily supplement of nutritional doses of trace elements (zinc and selenium sulfide) or vitamins (beta carotene, ascorbic acid, and vitamin E) or a placebo within a 2 x 2 factorial design for 2 years.
Main outcome measures: Delayed-type hypersensitivity skin response, humoral response to influenza vaccine, and infectious morbidity and mortality.
Results: Correction of specific nutrient deficiencies was observed after 6 months of supplementation and was maintained for the first year, during which there was no effect of any treatment on delayed-type hypersensitivity skin response. Antibody titers after influenza vaccine were higher in groups that received trace elements alone or associated with vitamins, whereas the vitamin group had significantly lower antibody titers (P<.05). The number of patients without respiratory tract infections during the study was higher in groups that received trace elements (P = .06). Supplementation with neither trace elements nor vitamins significantly reduced the incidence of urogenital infections. Survival analysis for the 2 years did not show any differences between the 4 groups.
Conclusions: Low-dose supplementation of zinc and selenium provides significant improvement in elderly patients by increasing the humoral response after vaccination and could have considerable public health importance by reducing morbidity from respiratory tract infections.