Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Centrum a Day Keeps the Cancer at Bay?

Alerted as usual by the lay press to the provocative results of a non-provocative study, I read with interest the article in the October 17th JAMA by Gaziano and colleagues: Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cancer in Men. From the lay press descriptions (see: NYT summary and a less sanguine NYT article published a few days later,) I knew only that it was a positive (statistically significant) study, that the reduction in cancer observed was 8%, that a multivitamin (Centrum Silver) was used, and the study population included 14,000 male physicians.

Needless to say, in spite of a dormant hope something so simple could prevent cancer, I was skeptical. Despite decades, perhaps eons of enthusiasm for the use of vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies, there is, to my knowledge (please, dear reader, direct me to the data if this is an omission) no credible evidence of a durable health benefit from taking such supplements in the absence of deficiency. But supplements have a lure that can beguile even the geniuses among us (see: Linus Pauling). So before I read the abstract and methods to check for the level of statistical significance, the primary endpoint, the number of endpoints, and sources of bias, I asked myself: "What is the probability that taking a simple commercially available multivitamin can prevent cancer?" and "what kind of P-value or level of statistical significance would I require to believe the result?" Indeed, if you have not yet seen the study, you can ask yourself those same questions now.