The pill described in this story is the first product of Elysium Health, a new company formed with the backing of many leading researchers in the field. The company claims to be science and data driven and suggests that its product is superior to other dietary supplements that haven’t been scientifically validated. We think the story should have been more forceful in exposing the hypocrisy of that stance. The company says it will provide evidence to support its claims at some point in the future, but it is selling the supplements NOW. So it is essentially doing the same thing that other unscrupulous supplement sellers are doing — enriching themselves based on the “promise” of a product that hasn’t been shown to provide any health benefit. The fact that Nobel laureates are the ones doing it is unfortunate, since their stature will distract consumers from the emptiness of the company’s claims.
With all that being said, the article does inject some context and a healthy dose of skepticism into this trendy topic. It doesn’t accept the company’s claims without challenge. It juxtaposes the big name affiliations of the company’s leaders and advisers with the uncertainty surrounding their wares. We just think it should have done more on that front and put it higher up in the story.
Dietary supplements are widely available but lightly regulated. When big scientific names back such a product, good reporting is critical to cut through the hype and shed light on the product’s real value. We’re pleased to see that many commenters on this story apparently saw through the smoke screen of Nobel names and sniffed out what’s really going on here:
The story tells us early on in the story that a month’s supply of the pill, called Basis, costs $50-60. So consumers will pay up to $700 a year for the privilege of helping the company test its pills.
The article quotes the company as saying that higher levels of the “natural compound” (found already in the human body) that is targeted by active ingredients in Basis has been associated with improved health in older mice, and that the pill has not been studied in humans. However, the article doesn’t tell us anything about the mouse studies directly: What sort of “improved health” did researchers find in the mice? Have researchers studied the active ingredients in Basis, or just the compound that these ingredients target?
To be clear, the story also quotes skeptical researchers who are asking very similar questions. For example: “What does it mean, to improve metabolic health? And what exactly is being repaired in the body? And is the outcome the same for everyone?” But did the story pose these tough questions to the company and fail to get a response? If so, a brief acknowledgment of that effort would have earned the story a satisfactory rating here.
Another route to a satisfactory score would have been to summarize some previous studies involving the active ingredients in Basis, such as pterostilbene.
The story suggests that supplements such as Basis “have to be shown to be safe for humans to take” prior to being sold, and the story does not mention any potential harms. This language will likely give readers a false sense of security. How can we be sure that a product is “safe for humans to take” if it’s never been tested in humans? Even if we don’t know what specific harms might occur with this supplement, the story could have referenced examples of previous supplements that passed regulatory muster but were subsequently shown to cause serious harm (e.g. ephedra). It could also have mentioned the harm to your wallet of spending $700 a year on an untested product.
We thought the story could have done a better job of grilling the Nobel laureates associated with this company. For example, it lets one of them suggest that their product is somehow better than the supplements sold at Whole Foods and CVS, where “you see miles of dietary supplements and vitamins” that have “no scientific basis.” In fact, a supplement that’s never been tested in humans also has little if any scientific basis for being sold.
The story does redeem itself later on by explaining the lack of evidence in humans with respect to the Basis pill and dietary supplements in general. Example: “there is no scientific evidence yet that the pill would produce the same beneficial effect in humans as in mice.”
The premise of the new supplement — one that is never challenged by the story — is that aging is somehow a “condition” that needs to be treated with a new medicine. Loss of muscle and other aspects of aging are normal changes that people experience as they age — not conditions in need of a cure. The framing of aging as a “condition” opens the door to expensive and untested approaches that waste money and encourage the use of more pills that can interact unpredictably. The story should have done more to resist this framing.
The article quotes a reputable source who provides an appropriately skeptical view — one of the strongest aspects of this piece
We give the story credit for mentioning that each of the active ingredients in Basis are already available in separate pills. But since the story is about a company that claims to offer healthier aging in a pill, we thought it was especially important to mention non-chemical approaches that are also associated with healthy aging, such as a good diet and exercise. The story didn’t do that.
The article mentions the pill will be available online and debuted on Tuesday.
The story provides excellent context for this product. It explains that the active ingredients are sold separately, but this is the first time this particular compound has been produced.
The article goes beyond any press release