Q: The other day I heard a rather frightening statement – that prescription drugs and medical procedures are among the leading causes of death in the United States. Is this true? And how do drugs compare in this regard to the safety of vitamins and antioxidants? Please give me some basic facts and statistics to put this into perspective.
Although drugs can be life-saving, the statistics are alarming. A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that pharmaceutical drugs are one of the four leading causes of death in America, along with heart disease, cancer, and stroke. The study found that 106,000 Americans die annually from pharmaceutical drugs – one person every five minutes. According to JAMA, this exceeds the number of annual deaths in the U.S. from alcohol (85,000), automobile crashes (43,000), firearms (29,000), or sexual behaviors including HIV/AIDS (20,000). Six times more Americans die annually from regulated pharmaceutical drugs than from illegal drugs (17,000). Disturbingly, the study was deemed a “conservative approach” for discounting factors that would have added many thousands of deaths.
Another JAMA article reported that in addition to the 106,000 annual deaths due to pharmaceutical medications, there are 7,000 from medication errors. It concluded that 225,000 people die every year due to medical treatments (including 113,000 from pharmaceutical drugs) in hospitals, making this by “a wide margin” one of the three leading causes of death in America. Again, these were described as low estimates that omitted criteria that would have raised the death count considerably.
So what about vitamins and antioxidants? Studies show they can prevent disease and extend your life – and we know excessive amounts of some can cause side effects – but how do the mortality statistics compare? You can look long and hard without finding a single case of death attributed to them. Neither JAMA article includes any report of vitamins as a cause of death. Nor do the Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, or the National Center for Health Statistics. The only reliable data is from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Its latest annual report (which lists 30-plus pages of fatalities caused by pharmaceutical drugs) individually names vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, among others; beside each is a conspicuous zero for the annual number of deaths caused. Not one fatality listed in a population of 300 million! According to the report, you have a statistically greater chance of dying from ingesting laundry soap, rat poison, batteries, or toilet bowl cleaner than you do from taking vitamins. You also have a greater likelihood of being struck by lightning.
So there you have it: 113,000 deaths caused annually by pharmaceutical drugs, and none by vitamins. May the facts help you keep a healthy perspective!