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Open Access Research

Nutritional supplements and infection in the elderly: why do the findings conflict?

Saul Sternberg1* and Seth Roberts2

Author affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104 - 6228, USA

2 Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720 - 1650, USA

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Citation and License

Nutrition Journal 2006, 5:30  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-5-30

Published: 23 November 2006

Abstract

Background

Most of the randomized placebo-controlled trials that have examined the clinical effects of multivitamin-mineral supplements on infection in the elderly have shown no significant effect. The exceptions are three such trials, all using a supplement with the same composition, and all claiming dramatic benefits: a frequently cited study published in 1992, which reported a 50% reduction in the number of days of infection (NDI), and two 2002 replication studies. Questions have been raised about the 1992 report; a second report in 2001 based on the same trial, but describing effects of the supplement on cognitive functions, has been retracted by Nutrition. The primary purpose of the present paper is to evaluate the claims about the effects of supplements on NDI in the two replication reports.

Methods

Examination of internal consistency (outcomes of statistical tests versus reported data); comparison of variability of NDI across individuals in these two reports with variability in other trials; estimation of the probability of achieving the reported close agreement with the original finding.

Results

The standard deviations of NDI and levels of statistical significance reported are profoundly inconsistent. The reported standard deviations of NDI are consistently below what other studies have found. The reported percent reductions in NDI agree too closely with the original study.

Conclusion

The claims of reduced NDI in the two replication reports should be questioned, which also adds to concerns about the 1992 study. It follows that there is currently no trustworthy evidence from randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials that favors the use of vitamin-mineral supplements to reduce infection in the elderly.