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November 15, 2004

BehindTheMedspeak: 'High Doses of Vitamin E Found to Raise Risk of Dying'


That's the headline over last Thursday's Washington Post front-page story by Rob Stein.

The editor who created that headline should know better.


Well, maybe I shouldn't single her out: after all, the Wall Street Journal's headline read

Vitamin E Supplements Can Pose Serious Risks, A New Study Concludes

Then there's the New York Times, which got it right; they headlined their story

Large Doses of Vitamin E May Be Harmful

All right, enough teasing, let's cut to the chase.

The actual findings of the study, to be reported in the January 4, 2005 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine?

Someone taking 400 I.U. (International Units) a day for five years would face a 5% higher risk of dying than someone who didn't take any extra Vitamin E.

To put things in perspective, the Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 1000 I.U. daily.

Dr. James Robins, a Harvard statistician quoted in the Times story, said, "They may be right but they somewhat oversold it statistically. It is definitely true that ... a high dose may be bad. I wouldn't tell anyone to take this stuff, but this is hardly definitive evidence."

Maret G. Traber, a researcher at Oregon State University, told the Washington Post, "Vitamin E won't kill you."

I couldn't agree more.


What, me worry?

What a crock, a 5% increase.


That's meaningless, regardless of how much the study's investigators massaged their data until they came up with something that was statistically significant.

No wonder no one believes anything they read: reporters and editors create alarm and dismay to attract attention, only to retract or ignore evidence that's not so eye-catching.

I'm reminded of the many studies that say something or other doubles your risk of getting cancer.

Hey, that's scary, right?

Maybe not, when the cancer risk increases from 1/100,000 to 2/100,000.

Yeah, but it doubled.

Yeah, but so what?


Gimme a break.

November 15, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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