Your Health Checkup: A Life Free from Chronic Diseases Cannot Be Found in a Pill Bottle

Sadly, most of us would rather swallow a pill than change our behavior, yet it is the latter that can most impact future health.

Graphic showing a dietary supplement

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ new book, Bear’s Promise, and check out his website


As I was sitting at my computer contemplating what to write for this column, an email blast appeared listing five supplements it said I should be taking. They included magnesium, vitamin C, B vitamins, fish oil and iron. I take none of them.

I have written previously about dietary supplements, noting that half of American adults consume at least one dietary supplement daily. I also stated that randomized clinical trials of vitamin and mineral supplements have not demonstrated clear benefits in preventing chronic diseases unrelated to nutritional deficiency, and stressed the fact that the Food and Drug Administration does not review dietary supplements for safety and efficacy. That means some may be harmful, may interact adversely with some medicines, and may not contain the precise ingredients stated on the label. I recently made the point that fish oil is one of the few dietary supplements with well-established efficacy.

Sadly, most of us would rather swallow a pill than change our behavior. Yet it is the latter that can most impact future health. For example, a recent study showed that healthy behavior at middle age was most important if you want to live your life free from cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Investigators analyzed information taken from 73,196 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, who were followed for 34 years, and 38,366 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, who were followed for 28 years. Healthy behavior was defined by five parameters: never smoking, body mass index of 18.5-24.9, moderate to vigorous physical activity (at least 30 minutes/day), moderate alcohol intake (women: 5-15 g/day — about one drink per day; men 5-30 g/day — about two drinks per day), and a higher diet quality score (upper 40 percent — such as from eating the Mediterranean diet).

Women who practiced four or five of the healthy habits at age 50 lived almost 11 years longer without developing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer compared to women who practiced none of these behaviors (34.4 years versus 23.7 years). Similarly, men practicing four or five healthy habits at age 50 lived more than seven years longer without these three chronic diseases than did men who practiced none of them (31.1 years versus 23.5 years). The lowest expectancy of disease-free life was found in men who were current heavy smokers (greater than 15 cigarettes/day) and obese men and women (body mass index greater than 30).

The take-away message from this important study is that your chances of living a life without type 2 diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease are better by adopting a healthy lifestyle than popping dietary supplement pills.

Naturally, you should not stop medicines prescribed for heart or other conditions. Those types of pills can be lifesaving.

There may be a dietary supplement that proves worthwhile in today’s climate. Vitamin D supplements may help prevent acute respiratory tract infections. In a study published several years ago, investigators analyzed data from 25 randomized controlled trials containing 10,933 participants taking vitamin D supplements. They found that vitamin D supplements were well tolerated and reduced the risk of acute respiratory tract infection, particularly in those who were vitamin D deficient to start, perhaps by supporting the immune system response. Whether vitamin D supplements protect against the COVID-19 viral infection should be determined by a prospective randomized trial, as researchers point out that there currently isn’t sufficient scientific evidence to support claims that high-dose vitamin D supplementation will be effective in preventing or treating COVID-19.

That said, there may be advantages in taking Vitamin D for some. It would be reasonable to check with your health care professional before starting.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


  1. I have engaged in all those
    awful habits,but started eliminating them
    40 years ago.Now at 76 the price I paid
    was very little.I just got back from my
    daily walk and will do more exercise
    then go off to an AA meeting.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *