Shame on AMA’s Archives of Internal Medicine
Did you hear the breaking news last night—that multivitamins may shorten your life? Here’s how junk science from the AMA set off the media frenzy.
Bloomberg phrased it this way: “Multivitamins and some dietary supplements, used regularly by an estimated 234 million US adults, may do more harm than good, according to a study that tied their use to higher death rates among older women.” The study’s authors outrageously concluded, “We see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements.”
The study, published in the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) Archives of Internal Medicine, assessed the use of vitamin and mineral supplements in nearly 39,000 women whose average age was 62. The researchers asked the women to fill out three surveys, the first in 1986, the second in 1997, and the last in 2004, reporting what supplements they took and what foods they ate, and answering a few questions about their health.
That’s right, all the data was self-reported by the study subjects only three times over the course of the 19-year-long study. To say the data is “unreliable” would be a generous description. This kind of “data” has no place in a valid scientific study.
Then the researchers looked at how many of the women had died by 2008. They reported that the number of deaths were somewhat higher for women who took copper, a little bit lower for women who took calcium, but about average for most of the women.
In the study, all of the relative risks were so low as to be barely statistically significant, and none was backed up by any medical investigation or biological plausibility study. No analysis was done on what combinations of vitamins and minerals were actually consumed, and no analysis of the cause of death was done beyond grouping for “cancer,” “cardiovascular disease,” or “other”—there was certainly no causative analysis done. The interactions of potential compounding risk factors is always tremendously complex—and was ignored in this so-called study.
“Multivitamin” can mean many different things, and of course changed tremendously over the 19 years during which this “study” was conducted. Were they high quality? Were the ingredients synthetic or natural? How much of each nutrient was taken? Were they really taken at all? How good is anyone’s memory in describing what took place over many years? One would assume that that the women’s diets fluctuated greatly over the same period; when self-reporting only three times in 19 years, there is a great deal of information one would naturally leave out even if some of it was accurate. No analysis was done of the effect of supplements on the women’s overall health, nor of their effect on women of other ages.
According to Dr. Robert Verkerk the Executive & Scientific Director of ANH-International;
“This study is a classic example of scientific reductionism being used to fulfill a particular need. In this case, it’s supplement bashing, a well-known preoccupation of Big Pharma — and an approach that appears to be central to the protection of Big Pharma’s profit margins.”
In short, this study is less than useless: it is dangerous, because it is being used by the media and the mainstream medical establishment to blacken the eye of nutritional supplements using poor data, bad analysis, and specious conclusions—otherwise known as junk science.
New info about last week’s horribly flawed vitamin study. This story keeps getting worse and worse. A new Action Alert!
Last Monday the Archives of Internal Medicine released a study claiming that vitamin use might lead to an earlier death. This set off a major media feeding frenzy, wave after wave of scary stories. Fox’s headline was typical: “Are Your Supplements Killing You?”
In our article last Tuesday, we pointed out that the study was “junk science” at its worst. The data were “observational”: women in Iowa were asked what supplements they were taking three times over eighteen years—that is every six years. Who remembers what they have taken over six years?
In addition, it was all anecdotal: you didn’t have to say what you were taking specifically, just vague terms like “multivitamin.” Were the vitamins synthetic or natural? How much did they take? Did they really take it, and for how long? Did they take it to stay healthy or because they had become very ill, perhaps with cancer? No one knows.
The next day, Dr. Robert Verkerk, our scientific director, weighed in. His analysis reveals, among many other interesting points, that all of the data was “adjusted” by the authors using methods of their own choice. If you look at the study itself, the first thing you see is an adjustment for “age and energy,” whatever “energy” means in this case. After this adjustment, vitamins C, B complex, E, D, as well as calcium, magnesium, selenium, and zinc all appear to add to years lived.
This evidently wasn’t an acceptable conclusion. So two more adjustments were made. First, if you had a healthy lifestyle and took vitamin C and lived longer, the longer life was attributed largely to the healthy lifestyle and not to the vitamin C. That put everything except B complex and calcium into neutral or negative territory.
Still the authors weren’t satisfied. They adjusted again, this time for healthy eating, with the result that every supplement except calcium, B complex, and vitamin D became a contributor to an earlier death, according to this undocumented and completely loony math, and only calcium actually lengthened life. Not surprisingly, almost none of this—except possibly for the the use of copper supplements taken by 24 women at the end of the study—could be claimed to be statistically significant, even using the authors’ own methods.
The only accurate conclusion that can be drawn from this data is that supplement users are generally healthier people. The why and how and whether it is meaningful is really unknown
The authors of the study admitted they started out with a hypothesis that supplements wouldn’t add to life. It appears, although it is not revealed, that the supplement users actually lived longer than the non-supplement users. But the authors just manipulated the data until they got what they wanted and more: Supplements not only didn’t help—they were killers! And the lazy, biased, or naïve major media took it from there.
Life Extension Foundation also did its own scientific analysis of the Archives of Internal Medicine study. Among other things, it pointed out that copper and iron are pro-oxidants, so their overuse should be expected to lead to earlier mortality. It also noted that many people start taking supplements only after they become ill, which is not controlled for in any way, and that a sizeable minority of the supplements users were also taking drugs that have since been proved to be highly dangerous—patented hormones in particular—although no attempt whatever was made to control for drug use.
To pretend to control for so many factors but not to control for drug use—and to get through peer review this way—is a sad commentary on the state of medical research today. Could this be related to the overwhelming influence of drug companies on medical research in general?
Mike Adams’ NaturalNews.com also offered a close analysis of the junk science. In addition to covering what it referred to as the study’s “statistical voodoo,” it also reminded us that the Archives of Internal Medicine “receives millions of dollars in advertising from drug companies,” part of the $400 million that goes from drug companies to medical journals, and that the major media trumpeting the study in scary headlines also stay afloat from the $4.7 billion spent in Pharma-to-consumer ads (all of this data is from 2008, and is actually higher now).
As Dr. David Brownstein noted in a video interview with Adams: “This study says absolutely nothing about vitamins. If this study was done in reverse, where vitamins were shown to be effective [easily accomplished with some further data manipulation], no journal would have printed [it] because it was so poorly done.”
It might also be worth mentioning that the results of this so-called study contradict another Archives of Internal Medicine study from 2009, with four times as many participants, which showed that vitamins neither helped nor hurt mortality. We have to point out, however, that the earlier study from the same journal was also junk science. The main difference between the two is that in 2009 the apparently biased authors thought they would generate controversy be saying that popular supplements didn’t help, while the clearly biased authors in 2011 took their screwy methodology right over the cliff.
After offering such shoddy work, the authors even had the temerity to advise people: “We recommend that [supplements only] be used with… symptomatic nutrient deficiency disease.” The problem is that, having set out to prove this point, the authors have only demeaned themselves with their methods.
Two other researchers, invited to comment by the journal, say that the study findings “add to the growing evidence demonstrating that certain anti-oxidant supplements, such as vitamin E, vitamin A, and beta carotene, can be harmful.” The trouble with this glib statement is that even the most “adjusted” data about these three supplements in the study is not statistically significant.
If you take a look at our web archive, you will see many articles about outrageous medical research studies and media distortions of even good studies. We can’t afford to let these pass by. At this very moment, the FDA is trying to revise the regulations governing supplements (see our Action Alert!) in a way that could raise supplement prices sky high and greatly restrict your choice. Senator Durbin has a bill in the Senate (see our Action Alert!) that would do the same. This phony Archives of Internal Medicine study will be used by the FDA and Durbin. It will fan the flames. We need to get the truth out there in response.
To do so, we have two new Action Alerts.
The first one is for doctors and scientists and will go to the editor of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The second is for consumers, doctors, and scientists (note that we need doctors and scientists as well as consumers), and it will go to major media outlets—places like Bloomberg, AP, Reuters, NPR, Time, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, USA Today, the Daily Beast, and Fox, among others. It will also go to Congress because of the connection to new FDA regulations and the Durbin bill.
Please TAKE ACTION NOW!