Vitamin E may ward off physical decline in elderly people, research suggests.
Vitamin E may help prevent tissue damage
Researchers found people aged over 65 who had lower levels of vitamin E performed worse on tests of basic physical ability.
The key may be that vitamin E is an antioxidant, protecting the body's tissues from damage caused by unstable particles called free radicals.
The Yale University School of Medicine study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The researchers measured levels of vitamins in the blood of 698 volunteers from areas around the Italian city of Florence.
The volunteers' performance on three physical tests - a short walk, balance and standing up from a seated position - were monitored over a three-year period.
While the researchers found an association between vitamin E and performance, their work suggested no such link with other essential vitamins, such as folate, B6, B12 and D.
Lead researcher Dr Benedetta Bartali said: "The odds of declining in physical function was 1.62 times greater in persons with low levels of vitamin E compared with persons with higher levels.
"Our results suggest that an appropriate dietary intake of vitamin E may help to reduce the decline in physical function among older persons.
"Since only one person in our study used vitamin E supplements, it is unknown whether the use of vitamin E supplements would have the same beneficial effect."
Dr Bartali said it was unlikely that vitamin E is simply a marker for poor nutrition because the results were independent of energy intake.
The researchers said they did not set out to identify exactly why vitamin E might help keep the body healthy.
But they point out that as well as its antioxidant effect, the vitamin is involved in the formation of red blood cells.
Vitamin E can be found in foods including wheat germ, soya, nuts, seeds, olives, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and asparagus.
Scientists have been examining the role vitamin E may play in preventing or treating certain health conditions including cancer and heart disease.
But some research has indicated very high amounts of vitamin E can be harmful, raising one's overall risk of death.
The UK's Food Standards Agency recommends that men should eat a healthy, balanced diet containing 4mg of vitamin E a day. For women the figure is 3mg a day.
Claire Williamson, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, said further research would be needed to confirm the findings.
She also stressed that vitamin E deficiency was rare.
However, she said: "We know from dietary surveys that many older people have an inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals and dietary improvements are needed.
"Good nutrition can have a profound impact on healthy life expectancy and a good diet can help improve the quality of life in older adults."