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They call this science?

Posted by Richard on March 31, 2006

In the past few months, several studies have been widely reported that supposedly discredited some widely-used nutritional supplement or alternative treatment. The fine folks at the Life Extension Foundation (LEF) have had enough of the shoddy studies, misleading press releases, and terrible reporting, and they’re preparing a full-fledged response. A preliminary article is available on their website now:

Over the past several months, the media has questioned the efficacy of several popular dietary supplements. In the upcoming June 2006 issue of Life Extension magazine, we dissect these negative media reports down to the bone to reveal the hard scientific facts.

In doing so, we expose the absurdity of the headline-hungry media making proclamations such as “another natural remedy bit the dust” when describing the recent glucosamine study. We also reveal the inappropriateness of conventional doctors, with little knowledge about the proper use of nutrients, but with strong financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, conducting studies that contain so many flaws that their findings are largely irrelevant.

As usual for LEF, this article is footnoted to a fare-thee-well — 181 references, most to studies published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals. If you print the article, it runs about 6 pages, depending on margin settings, etc. The references add about 6 more pages. The article provides brief preliminary critiques — scathing ones — of studies claiming that:

  • Eating a low-fat diet doesn’t reduce women’s risk of heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, or colon cancer.
  • Calcium and vitamin D don’t protect women’s bones.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin aren’t effective for osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Saw palmetto is ineffective in treating prostate enlargement.

Each of those four claims is easily shown to be false. In fact, a couple of them are even contradicted by the studies, which were mischaracterized in press releases and media reports.

My favorite is the calcium and vitamin D study, which appeared in February’s New England Journal of Medicine. LEF’s Bill Faloon said it may be  "one of the most poorly designed studies in the history of modern medicine."

In theory, one group of women was assigned to take a calcium – vitamin D supplement and another group was assigned to take a placebo. Reportedly, the supplement group had just as many hip fractures as the placebo group.

Actually, the study did find a 29% reduction in hip fractures among the subset of the supplement group who actually took the supplements. You see, about 40% of the supplement group didn’t "achieve a standard rate of compliance," meaning they took less than 80% of the calcium and vitamin D they were supposed to take. But that didn’t matter to the MDs and PhDs conducting the study (emphasis and footnote from article):

This meant that women in the active group (the one given the calcium-vitamin D supplements) were counted as having taken the calcium-vitamin D, whether they really took the supplement or not. According to the scientists who conducted this study:

“Participants were followed for major outcomes, regardless of their adherence to the study medication…”

The “study medication” mentioned above is the calcium-vitamin D supplement. The fact that a study could be published in a medical journal “regardless” of whether the participants actually took the active ingredient defies logic.

Presumably, the placebo group had the same poor rate of compliance (since participants didn’t know whether it was the supplement or the placebo they were failing to take). So what we really have here is a $10 million federally-funded study proving that women who fail to take their calcium and vitamin D are just as likely to break a hip as women who fail to take a placebo. Unbe-frickin-lievable.

There’s more. That’s only one of several serious flaws with the calcium study. And the other studies are equally unimpressive. Read the whole thing — it’s your tax dollars at work and your health at stake.

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One Response to “They call this science?”

  1. VRB said

    Why would they do a study about calcium and vitamin D? When I was on dialysis, to prevent bone loss, both males and females were required to take calcium and vitamin D which is injected directly in the blood flow. Every week your blood is tested for those levels. It is necessary because your kidney is failing to process phosphorous which is known to cause osteoporosis. This can happen even when you are watching what you eat. No nuts, beans or dairy.

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