Vitamin D supplementation for prevention of mortality in adults

Review question

To assess the beneficial and harmful effects of vitamin D for prevention of mortality in healthy adults and adults in a stable phase of disease.


Numerous observational studies suggest that optimal vitamin D status may be associated with fewer occurrences of cancer and cardiovascular disease (such as heart attack or stroke). Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin as vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) or is obtained from dietary sources or supplements as vitamin D3 or vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). Our Cochrane systematic review from 2011, which analysed the influence of different forms of vitamin D on mortality, showed that vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) decreased mortality. This systematic review is now updated, and all included trials have been reassessed in accordance with improved Cochrane methodology, developed to enhance the validity of the conclusions.

Study characteristics

In the 56 trials that provided data for the analyses, a total of 95,286 participants were randomly assigned to vitamin D versus no treatment or placebo. More than half of the trials were considered to have low risk of bias. All trials were conducted in high-income countries. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 107 years. The mean proportion of women was 77%. Vitamin D was administered for an average of 4.4 years.

This plain language summary is as current as of February 2012.

Key results

This review suggests that vitamin D3 may reduce mortality, showing that about 150 participants need to be treated over five years for one additional life to be saved. We found comparable effects of vitamin D3 in studies that included only women compared with studies including both women and men. Vitamin D3 also seemed to decrease cancer mortality, showing a reduction in mortality of 4 per 1000 persons treated for five to seven years. We also observed adverse effects to vitamin D such as renal stone formation (seen for vitamin D3 combined with calcium) and elevated blood levels of calcium (seen for both alfacalcidol and calcitriol). In conclusion, we found some evidence that vitamin D3 seems to decrease mortality in elderly people not dependent on help or living in institutional care.

Quality of the evidence

A large number of study participants left the trial before completion, and this raises concerns regarding the validity of the results. More randomised clinical trials are needed on the effects of vitamin D3 on mortality in younger, healthy persons, as well as in elderly community-dwelling and institutionalised persons without apparent vitamin D deficiency.

Authors' conclusions: 

Vitamin D3 seemed to decrease mortality in elderly people living independently or in institutional care. Vitamin D2,alfacalcidol and calcitriolhad no statistically significant beneficial effects on mortality. Vitamin D3 combined with calcium increased nephrolithiasis. Both alfacalcidol and calcitriol increased hypercalcaemia. Because of risks of attrition bias originating from substantial dropout of participants and of outcome reporting bias due to a number of trials not reporting on mortality, as well as a number of other weaknesses in our evidence, further placebo-controlled randomised trials seem warranted.

Read the full abstract...

Available evidence on the effects of vitamin D on mortality has been inconclusive. In a recent systematic review, we found evidence that vitamin D3 may decrease mortality in mostly elderly women. The present systematic review updates and reassesses the benefits and harms of vitamin D supplementation used in primary and secondary prophylaxis of mortality.


To assess the beneficial and harmful effects of vitamin D supplementation for prevention of mortality in healthy adults and adults in a stable phase of disease.

Search strategy: 

We searched The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, EMBASE, LILACS, the Science Citation Index–Expanded and Conference Proceedings Citation Index–Science (all up to February 2012). We checked references of included trials and pharmaceutical companies for unidentified relevant trials.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised trials that compared any type of vitamin D in any dose with any duration and route of administration versus placebo or no intervention in adult participants. Participants could have been recruited from the general population or from patients diagnosed with a disease in a stable phase. Vitamin D could have been administered as supplemental vitamin D (vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) or vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol)) or as an active form of vitamin D (1α-hydroxyvitamin D (alfacalcidol) or 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(calcitriol)).

Data collection and analysis: 

Six review authors extracted data independently. Random-effects and fixed-effect meta-analyses were conducted. For dichotomous outcomes, we calculated the risk ratios (RRs). To account for trials with zero events, we performed meta-analyses of dichotomous data using risk differences (RDs) and empirical continuity corrections. We used published data and data obtained by contacting trial authors.

To minimise the risk of systematic error, we assessed the risk of bias of the included trials. Trial sequential analyses controlled the risk of random errors possibly caused by cumulative meta-analyses.

Main results: 

We identified 159 randomised clinical trials. Ninety-four trials reported no mortality, and nine trials reported mortality but did not report in which intervention group the mortality occurred. Accordingly, 56 randomised trials with 95,286 participants provided usable data on mortality. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 107 years. Most trials included women older than 70 years. The mean proportion of women was 77%. Forty-eight of the trials randomly assigned 94,491 healthy participants. Of these, four trials included healthy volunteers, nine trials included postmenopausal women and 35 trials included older people living on their own or in institutional care. The remaining eight trials randomly assigned 795 participants with neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory or rheumatoid diseases. Vitamin D was administered for a weighted mean of 4.4 years. More than half of the trials had a low risk of bias. All trials were conducted in high-income countries. Forty-five trials (80%) reported the baseline vitamin D status of participants based on serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. Participants in 19 trials had vitamin D adequacy (at or above 20 ng/mL). Participants in the remaining 26 trials had vitamin D insufficiency (less than 20 ng/mL).
Vitamin D decreased mortality in all 56 trials analysed together (5,920/47,472 (12.5%) vs 6,077/47,814 (12.7%); RR 0.97 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.94 to 0.99); P = 0.02; I2 = 0%). More than 8% of participants dropped out. 'Worst-best case' and 'best-worst case' scenario analyses demonstrated that vitamin D could be associated with a dramatic increase or decrease in mortality. When different forms of vitamin D were assessed in separate analyses, only vitamin D3 decreased mortality (4,153/37,817 (11.0%) vs 4,340/38,110 (11.4%); RR 0.94 (95% CI 0.91 to 0.98); P = 0.002; I2 = 0%; 75,927 participants; 38 trials). Vitamin D2, alfacalcidol and calcitriol did not significantly affect mortality. A subgroup analysis of trials at high risk of bias suggested that vitamin D2 may even increase mortality, but this finding could be due to random errors. Trial sequential analysis supported our finding regarding vitamin D3,with the cumulative Z-score breaking the trial sequential monitoring boundary for benefit, corresponding to 150 people treated over five years to prevent one additional death. We did not observe any statistically significant differences in the effect of vitamin D on mortality in subgroup analyses of trials at low risk of bias compared with trials at high risk of bias; of trials using placebo compared with trials using no intervention in the control group; of trials with no risk of industry bias compared with trials with risk of industry bias; of trials assessing primary prevention compared with trials assessing secondary prevention; of trials including participants with vitamin D level below 20 ng/mL at entry compared with trials including participants with vitamin D levels equal to or greater than 20 ng/mL at entry; of trials including ambulatory participants compared with trials including institutionalised participants; of trials using concomitant calcium supplementation compared with trials without calcium; of trials using a dose below 800 IU per day compared with trials using doses above 800 IU per day; and of trials including only women compared with trials including both sexes or only men. Vitamin D3 statistically significantly decreased cancer mortality (RR 0.88 (95% CI 0.78 to 0.98); P = 0.02; I2 = 0%; 44,492 participants; 4 trials). Vitamin D3 combined with calcium increased the risk of nephrolithiasis (RR 1.17 (95% CI 1.02 to 1.34); P = 0.02; I2 = 0%; 42,876 participants; 4 trials). Alfacalcidol and calcitriol increased the risk of hypercalcaemia (RR 3.18 (95% CI 1.17 to 8.68); P = 0.02; I2 = 17%; 710 participants; 3 trials).