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Do You Want The Bad News Or The Really Bad News First?

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OK, let’s get the really bad news out of the way first: a major study this week which followed 39,000 women over 19 years showed that not only is there no major health benefit to taking a general multivitamin, but actually there was a 2.4% increase in deaths. In particular, as the New York Times summarizes:

Use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper were all associated with increased risk of death. The findings translate to a 2.4 percent increase in absolute risk for multivitamin users, a 4 percent increase associated with vitamin B6, a 5.9 percent increase for folic acid, and increases of 3 to 4 percent in risk for those taking supplements of iron, folic acid, magnesium and zinc.

This is not a surprising finding to me, as I already stopped taking a multivitamin last year after reviewing other recent large studies which also find essentially no major benefit, and some risks, in a multivitamin. The main issue is that most healthy adults get plenty of these compounds from their diet, and excess amounts of iron, beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin E and others can actually hurt a lot more than help. In fact, another major study this week showed how vitamin E supplements increase the risk of prostate cancer. How many of you take a multivitamin?

The second news story this week on my podcast discusses the bad news around Steve Jobs’ death, which is bringing the spotlight upon pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly cancers, unfortunately, as most people are diagnosed late into the disease, and it’s extremely difficult to treat. Can lifestyle help? The data on a super-healthy diet is actually not convincing; the strongest risk factors are smoking and obesity, both which raise the risk almost twice the norm.

More Podcast Information

You can always listen live to my radio interview each Wednesday around 7:35am Beijing time, on the Beijing Hour program on EZFM 91.5, which is broadcast from 7-8am every weekday by host Paul James. EZFM is the popular bilingual radio station on the China Radio International network, broadcasting here in Beijing and on multiple stations all over the world, as well as live online here.

You can listen to all my previous podcasts at the podcast archive.

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3 thoughts on “Do You Want The Bad News Or The Really Bad News First?”

  1. Hey folks. This study has made major news, but is really NO GOOD. Just look at it, it’s junky!

    Each woman was require to self-report what food and supplements they had taken over the previous years, and there were only three surveys over two decades! (in 1986, then 1997 and also in 2004- the 1997 survey did not include any data at all on food intake- you would think this is of some significance in regards to assessing nutrient levels.)

    There was no controlling for overall health status! Therefore, X woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer, starts taking a multi vitamin, and dies of breast cancer, yet gets placed in the MultiVitamin Death group. Shoddy!

    1. Of the women surveyed, approximately 15% smoked, 35% used to smoke, 45% drank alcohol and 40% had high blood pressure [1].

    2. The report did not determine the amounts of vitamin and nutrient supplements taken, or if they were artificial or natural.

    3. The study reported that taking supplements of B-complex, vitamins C, D, E, and calcium and magnesium were actually associated with a lower risk of death, and most of the mortality came from the use of iron and copper supplements [1] (most supplements containing Iron also contain a warning that excess use can cause death, a well documented fact [2,3]).

    4. The study showed the strongest associations for Calcium, which actually reduced the risk of death [4].

    5. Key factors not accounted for include the individuals drug intake, nutrient intake from sources other than vitamins, the types of supplements taken and the possibility that sub-clinical signs of chronic disease could already have been present in some subjects at the start of the study.

    The negative findings were only evident following data adjustment (or data massage) [4], and the final comments by the authors stated “We did not have data regarding nutritional status or detailed information of supplements used”

    The journal this was published in, Archives of Internal Medicine. It is owned by the American Medical Association- they have a very long history of openly attacking vitamins and nutrition. In fact the AMA has been found guilty of Conspiracy as they accepted large sums of advertising money from the Tobacco Industry and reported many benefits of smoking!

    The AMA also have had a attack philosophy, until very recently, and did a great disservice to humanity, I feel, by trying for so long to discredit the whole field of chiropractic medicine.

    If you read any of the history of this organization, they were founded on this very principle of self protection, attempts to discredit competitors and blacklist certain practitioners. The whole purpose of the AMA at the time it was formed, was to combat the growing practice of homeopathy. Over 250 allopathic doctors banded together in 1847 with the express purpose of stamping out Homeopathy.

    1. Here’s a well-educated discussion about this new study: Your “rebuttal” link is from the supplement trade industry and thus cannot be considered a serious rebuttal due to their obvious self-interest. Plenty of other good writers have pointed out flaws in the study. As I mention in the podcast, you cannot assume too much from the study and certainly it doesn’t imply causation anyway, only association. Observational studies like this can never show causation; plus, simply by study design, they aren’t able to factor out confounders such as illnesses etc.

      But it certainly isn’t the first large study to examine multivitamins, and I mentioned ones last year in my piece which are better designed and which still didn’t show much benefit, certainly no obvious decrease in overall mortality. I think the burden of proof should be on the multivitamin industry to show that these actually work. I wish they did work! I would love to recommend things that are proven to work. Perhaps soon a better study will come along and change my mind again.

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