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Harvard Researchers Find that Higher Intakes of Beta- and Alpha-Carotene May Reduce Risk of Heart Disease in Women

BACKGROUND: Existing research suggests that carotenoids, a family of antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Carotenoids quench free radicals and may reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, an early step in the development of heart disease. Numerous studies have shown that higher intakes or higher blood concentrations of carotenes are associated with a lower risk of coronary artery disease (CAD). But because trials of beta-carotene supplementation were not effective in preventing heart attacks, attention has focused instead on the potential role of other dietary carotenoids in the prevention of CAD.

RESEARCH: Using a modified food questionnaire for carotenoids in 1984, Harvard researchers studied the eating habits and health of more than 73, 000 female nurses. During 12 years of follow up, nonfatal heart attacks or fatal heart disease occurred in 998 of the subjects. The researchers investigated relationships between specific dietary carotenoids and the risk of CAD, taking into account the possible effects of weight, smoking, and other risk factors.

RESULTS: Women with the highest dietary intakes of beta-carotene and alpha- carotene were least likely to have fatal or nonfatal heart attacks. Those with the highest intake of beta-carotene were 26 percent less likely to have CAD than those with the lowest intake and those with the highest intake of alpha-carotene were 20 percent less likely to experience CAD.

There was no significant association between intakes of lutein/zeaxanthin, lycopene or beta-cryptoxanthin and risk of CAD.

IMPLICATIONS: This study found that a high dietary intake of foods rich in beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, but not other carotenoids, reduced the risk of coronary artery disease in women.

Osganian SK, Stampfer MJ, Rimm E, et al, "Dietary carotenoids and risk of coronary artery disease in women." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003;77:1390-1399.

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