Dietary Supplements Increase Mortality Rate in Older Women

Or Do They? A Look at the Propaganda Behind the Headlines

In medicine, patients are the market force. In that particular court of public opinion, which is informed by the direct experience of what has actually worked and what has harmed people, the likes of Jacobs’ junk science will inevitably wind up in the garbage heap of medical history.

And the next time some headline announces that vitamins give you cancer, and that organic food lacks nutrients, be sure to check out the real truth behind the headlines for yourself.

The annual Whole Life Expo is upon us again, allowing us to celebrate freedom of choice in healthcare, learn new ways to take charge of our bodies and minds, and reaffirm our resolve not to let medical propaganda get us down.

More than ever this year, we need feisty determination to understand the difference between the spin and the facts. Case in point – an absolutely pernicious piece of “research” was published on October 10, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, entitled “Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women.” Its publication was met with heated debates in cyberspace all over the world and included what, at first sight, appeared like an over-the-top comment: “This garbage is an insult to garbage!” Thinking about it carefully though, it became apparent to me that the comment actually hits the mark: this science-challenged and fact-deprived “research” on dietary supplements obeys none of the accepted standards of science, and twists the tools of research to serve no useful purpose. When garbage doesn’t go away it becomes dangerous to health.

In the study, the authors assert that dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals) taken by 38,772 women in the Iowa Women’s Health Study, from 1986 to 2004, increased the rate of mortality.

These study results were widely reported in the mainstream media as if they were the gospel truth. Even the CBC did not stop and ask the single most important question any health journalist ought to ask: “Does association prove causation in this research?” Well, association never equals causation, as journalism professor Gary Switzer of the University of Minnesota points out, but reporters fall into that trap constantly. For example: a lot of people travel on Highway 401 every day. If somebody were to tabulate how many of them annually suffer a heart attack, the resulting number would not prove that the 401 causes heart attacks. The logic displayed in the dietary supplements article is exactly as silly as that.

Probably the most frequently asked question I encounter is – how do I tell the difference between junk science and real science in medicine? The question is of vital importance, and here is your chance to get an answer – which will then put you into the empowered frame of mind with which to thoroughly enjoy the upcoming Expo.

Multiple Flaws in the Study Design

Here is a short list of what is wrong with this study, and as usual “the truth shall set you free,” but in this case it doesn’t even hurt first.

1)  The participants were given questionnaires in 1986, 1997, and 2004. The entire research is based on this self-reported material; none was verified independently, and there was no attempt at a control group, such as following women who take no supplements or who took a placebo sugar pill. Since the causes of death recorded were many (only deaths by accidents were ruled out from consideration), it is difficult to understand what influence those various supplements actually had. The recorded data float in a sea of the undeterminable.
2)  No attempt was made to determine the quality of the supplements, whether they were synthetic or natural-based products, whether the same ones were taken throughout each large time interval. And given that different participants took different combinations and amounts of supplements, nobody knows what was influencing what. Between 1986 and 2004 a lot happened in the supplement and food industries, so the qualitative considerations would be key if any meaningful association between health/death and supplements was to be examined scientifically.
3)  The food portion of the questionnaire made no differentiation between organic and conventional foods – understandable in 1986, but totally inappropriate by 2004. We will never know how many old ladies figured out they better eat organic and got even more vitamins, wholly absorbable, than they could possibly know how to report.
4)  Then the data had, of necessity, to be manipulated so that some sort of correlation could be imagined. As a result, it will be impossible to replicate it – the protocol is anchored in nothing and the resulting data are jelly.  If you can’t replicate something in science, it is by definition fraudulent research.
5)  Those who know something about statistical analysis will see quickly that all the so-called “relative risks” are meaningless because they are so low as to be drowned out by the recorded deaths.
6)  Although the authors conclude that taking supplements hastens death, when you look through the data you find something extremely funny: in the U.S., women currently have a life expectancy of 80 years; but no less than 50% of the study participants were still around at 82! Now that is statistically significant! Did the media actually read this whole article? Had they done so, they would have had to headline the news with “Supplements found to extend life expectancy!

This so-called research amounts to a hopeless mess presented with pompous certainty, but masterfully designed to give an unsubstantiated impression about vitamin and mineral supplements. So, what is behind this immense effort? It is not enough to assume a sinister and carefully orchestrated attack from Big Pharma on the constantly increasing use of dietary supplements, which actually do promote health and can cure many illnesses. The assumption must be tested.

The Man Behind the ‘Research’

By convention, the lead author of a research paper is always the last person mentioned in the byline list. In this case that is David R. Jacobs Jr, who received a PhD in mathematical statistics from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University and then became a professor of public health in Minnesota. He certainly knows statistics and appears to know how to make them obey his command.

To my surprise, I found that he was awarded an important honour in 2006, by the National Institutes of Health, for research published in 2004 supposedly showing that women with diabetes died more frequently of heart attacks and strokes if they took “high” doses of vitamin C. He apparently has been out to prove that vitamins kill you for a long time. That article is even worse than the one on the Iowa Women’s Health Study. The methods are the same: assertions are made based on either no sources or on those sources that happen to fit the task – even discredited items nobody would cite anymore, which means we have here a master of the use of “confirmation bias,” which is exactly opposite from science as generally understood; careful science is not necessarily unbiased because scientists are human and prefer certain potential outcomes over others, but they are trained to look for what disproves – not only proves – their hypothesis in order to force themselves to look at all the evidence, however unreasonable it may appear to them at first.

Dangerous Flaws in Jacobs’ Diabetes, Heart Attack, Stroke Study

In Jacobs’ 2004 study, again, the diabetes is self-reported, not independently diagnosed and confirmed. His team did certain standard tests on the subjects, but they arrived strictly as self-reported diabetics.

In regards to the vitamin C aspect of the study, Jacobs reports that “high” intake is equivalent to 300 mg daily. Yet even back in 2004 the recommended maximum daily amount for healthy people was 2,000 mg, as published by the U.S. government and Health Canada. The RDAs were developed after World War II and based on the mythic healthy 24-year old male – but only in amounts to just prevent actual disease, i.e. scurvy in the case of vitamin C.  Soon these RDAs were found to be so fact-challenged and its guideline authors shown to be so bent on pursuing confirmation bias while Big Pharma took ever more control of science and the healthcare market, that they finally had to cave in to the accumulating tide of scientific data that contradicted their illusions (and their paymasters’ interests), and they had to increase the maximum RDA in 2000.

Now, that’s four years before this diabetes study was conducted and Jacobs, a professor of public health, ought to have known that. Public health research and activities are grounded in government statistics and public health guidelines. It is impossible that Jacobs did not know about these government RDA recommendations. It is, therefore, very strange that he only used about 1/7 of the maximum recommended dosage for healthy people to conduct his study on sick people, especially the type of sickness (diabetes) that is generally acknowledged to be essentially an extreme complication of vitamin C deficiency induced by various factors. Worst of all, diabetics even lose their limbs to neuropathy because less and less vitamin C is available to repair and maintain their blood vessels over time, after the pancreas ceases to make insulin, thereby causing what is called “localized scurvy.”

What’s ironic here is the fact that the beneficial use of vitamin C in truly high doses has actually prevented diabetic neuropathy and saved patients’ legs from amputation – this has been confirmed by double-blind studies, the gold standard of mainstream medicine (Gaby p. 1094 ff). Those reports show that amputations were successfully prevented, early onset neuropathy was reversed, and heart attacks and strokes drastically reduced in number due to supplementation with 1,000 – 2,000+ mg of vitamin C daily, together with prime cardiovascular nutrient vitamin E, which prevents vitamin C from being excreted in urine. Is it possible that Jacobs did not know of these university-based studies? Dare we imagine how many women lost their feet or legs, or died from strokes and heart attacks, because of this inexcusable under-dosing with vitamin C?

Now, how about that award Jacobs was given two years later by the NIH for this wonderful “proof” that “high” doses of vitamin C are more likely to cause strokes and heart attacks in diabetic women? Is it possible that the illustrious scientists of the NIH did not know about this contradictory mainstream research, which would have been truly worthy of an award?  The kindest thing to be said is that the NIH has been shown, time and again, to act in ways that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and it’s been known to allow its mandate to be contaminated by Big Pharma (to the detriment of public health). Worst of all, there are no drugs whatsoever that have been shown to prevent or reverse diabetic neuropathy.

There are many researchers who abandon their conscience and then “doctor’ evidence to push an agenda that runs in the opposite direction from what the experience of thousands has proven to be true and healing. It would be nice if the old ladies from the Iowa study and the wheelchair-bound diabetics from the vitamin C study knew what they were being used for – and then went to court. That does happen, of course: doctors have gone to jail for fabricating data or interpreting them to the detriment of patients.  Best of all, Big Pharma is reeling under the lawsuits they’ve lost time and again, now having earned the dubious distinction of paying out the largest compensations in all of U.S. legal history for the toxic drugs they knew were toxic when they doctored the evidence to get them to market – and (profitably) killed hundreds of thousands of people in the process (see Elliott).

Thankfully, the reader can sit in judgment of the evidence, check it out, and compare the information with their own experience. Our personal judgment determines the so-called “market forces.” In medicine, patients are the market force. In that particular court of public opinion, which is informed by the direct experience of what actually works and what harms, the likes of Jacobs’ junk science will inevitably wind up in the garbage heap of medical history. Meanwhile, a small detective effort, such as the one I undertook for this article, provides you with tools and testable questions. The next time some headline announces that vitamins give you cancer, and that organic food lacks nutrients, you will know how to check out the real truth behind the headlines for yourself.


J. Mursu et al (senior author: David R. Jacobs Jr), Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women, Archives of Internal Medicine, October 2011 (171/8)
D. Lee et al (senior author: David R. Jacobs Jr.), Does supplemental vitamin C increase cardiovascular disease risk in women with diabetes? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004 (80/1)
C. Elliott, White Coat Black Hat, Beacon, 2010
R. F. Cathcart III, MD, Vitamin C, titrating to bowel tolerance, anascorbemia, and acute induced scurvy, Medical Hypothesis, vol. 7, 1981
S. W. Fowkes, Vitamin C, RDAs and Politics, Smart Drugs News, Aug 1, 1996
C. Poliquin, Flawed Iowa Women’s Health Study Used to Discredit Supplements: Don’t Believe It!, October 17, 2011 posting
O. R. Fonorow, Vitamin RDAs raised but Council cautions about overdose, April 2000, download from (lists best research on vitamin C)
J. Neuman et al. Prevalence of financial conflicts of interest among panel members producing clinical practice guidelines in Canada and the United States: cross sectional study, British Medical Journal, (open access, pre-print text), October 2011
A. Gaby MD, Nutritional Medicine, Fritz Perlberg Publishing 2010
C. Gerson, Defeating Obesity, Diabetes and High Blood Pressure, Gerson Health Media, 2010
Alliance for Natural Health UK & USA,
Reliable source on vitamin C: Dr. Andrew Saul; subscribe to the free Orthomolecular Medicine News Service
For more on junk science, download for free my two books on

Disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites. Our participation does not influence our content, but it helps offset the costs involved in providing you with free information.

Helke Ferrie is a medical science writer with a master's degree in physical anthropology. Her specialty lies in investigative research into ethical issues in medicine and the politics of health. She started her investigative journalism career in the mid-1990s, looking at issues of medicine and environment. She has been a regular contributor to Vitality Magazine ever since. Helke has also authored several books on various subjects including: "Ending Denial: The Lyme Disease Epidemic", "What Part of No! Don't They Understand: Rescuing Food and Medicine from Government Abuse", and "The Earth's Gift to Medicine". Read her article: When governments abandon the public interest — look out for your own health Find her book -What Part of No! Don't They Understand Helke has also been a regular contributor for the Vitality Magazine. Links to few of her articles: The Tyranny of Government Protection Success Story - How I Recovered from Lyme Disease IN THE NEWS: Fluoride Dangers; Roundup Lawsuits; Lyme Disease Epidemic Helke Ferrie now lives a retired life and can be reached at

Write a Comment

view all comments