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Of strokes and smokers

MagazineOctober 1996 (Vol. 7 Issue 7)Of strokes and smokers

Stroke is the third biggest killer in the West

Stroke is the third biggest killer in the West. The most frustrating aspect of this statistic is that it concerns a disease which is entirely preventable with an anti oxidant rich diet (see p5). But few doctors are interested in this approach, following the hammering antioxidants have taken recently.

You've no doubt heard about two recent scientific studies showing that beta carotene "causes" cancer. In 1994, among a group of 30,000 male smokers in Finland, those given the beta carotene not only weren't healthier than the other groups but had an 18 per cent higher incidence of cancer than those who didn't take the supplements (N E J Med, 1994; 330:1029-35).Then last January, another study in Seattle attempting to determine whether beta carotene supplementation would protect asbestos workers and heavy smokers against developing lung cancer was halted 21 months early because, again, there seemed to be a higher incidence of cancer among those taking the vitamins.

Once the results came to light, medicine had a field day. All the suspicions that vitamins, diet and other alternative approaches don't work appeared to be vindicated. And many of the rest of us were left with the impression that eating fruits and vegetables wasn't going to make any difference to our health.

Dr Brian Leibovitz, who conducted research and co authored work on cancer with the late Nobel Laureate Dr Linus Pauling, called the Finnish study a "travesty of science an experiment designed to fail." In the Finnish study, the doses of beta carotene were far too low (20 mg), when at least 120-180 mg per day was needed to have any therapeutic value, he says, even in non smokers. The Finnish men, all still smokers through the study, had smoked for at least 36 years. Nearly a fifth of the group worked in mines and quarries and with insulation by themselves risk factors for lung cancer which exacerbate the effects of smoking. And nobody bothered to determine whether there were other risk factors in the two groups, such as a high fat diet.

The architects of both studies also isolated beta carotene on its own, when it's been shown elsewhere that antioxidants need to be working together.

It's also wise to remember that The National Cancer Institute, which funded the Seattle and Finnish studies, is a declared enemy of vitamin supplementation.

Most fundamentally, both studies entirely miss the point that nutritional doctors have been making for years. No one has ever claimed that a single pill, whether a drug or a vitamin, can make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. "If there's any bottom line, it's that we don't have a magic bullet for smokers,", says Jeff Blumberg, profession of nutrition at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Those pushing aspirin as the miracle preventative for stroke would be well advised to bear that in mind.

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