Statins have been almost universally hailed as “wonder drugs” by medical authorities around the world. The market for statins was $26 billion in 2005, and sales for Lipitor alone reached $14 billion in 2006. Merck and Bristol Myers-Squib are actively seeking “over-the-counter” (OTC) status for their statin drugs. Statins are prescribed to men and women, children and the elderly, people with heart disease and people without heart disease.
In fact, these drugs have a reputation for being so safe and effective that one UK physician, John Reckless (I’m not kidding - that’s actually his name!) has suggested that we put statins in the water supply.
That’s a bold suggestion, of course, and it begs the question: are statins really as safe and cost effective as mainstream medical authorities claim? The unequivocal answer is no.
Statins don’t increase survival in healthy people
Statins have never been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of death in people with no history of heart disease. No study of statins on this “primary prevention population” has ever shown reduced mortality in healthy men and women with only an elevated serum cholesterol level and no known coronary heart disease. (CMAJ. 2005 Nov 8;173(10):1207; author reply 1210.) In fact, an analysis of large, controlled trials prior to 2000 found that long-term use of statins for primary prevention of CHD produced a 1% greater risk of death over 10 years compared to placebo
Statins don’t increase survival in women
Despite the fact that around half of the millions of statin prescriptions written each year are handed to female patients, these drugs show no overall mortality benefit regardless of whether they are used for primary prevention (women with no history of heart disease) or secondary prevention (women with pre-existing heart disease). In women without coronary heart disease (CHD), statins fail to lower both CHD and overall mortality, while in women with CHD, statins do lower CHD mortality but increase the risk of death from other causes, leaving overall mortality unchanged. (JAMA study)
Statins don’t increase survival in the elderly
The only statin study dealing exclusively with seniors, the PROSPER trial, found that pravastatin did reduce the incidence of coronary mortality (death from heart disease). However, this decrease was almost entirely negated by a corresponding increase in cancer deaths. As a result, overall mortality between the pravastatin and placebo groups after 3.2 years was nearly identical.
This is a highly significant finding since the rate of heart disease in 65-year old men is ten times higher than it is in 45-year old men. The vast majority of people who die from heart disease are over 65, and there is no evidence that statins are effective in this population.
Do statins work for anyone?
Among people with CHD or considered to be at high risk for CHD, the effect of statins on the incidence of CHD mortality ranges from virtually none (in the ALLHAT trial) to forty-six percent (the LIPS trial). The reduction in total mortality from all causes ranges from none (the ALLHAT trial) to twenty-nine percent (the 4S trial).
However, the use of statins in this population is not without considerable risk. Statins frequently produce muscle weakness, lethargy, liver dysfunction and cognitive disturbances ranging from confusion to transient amnesia. They have produced severe rhabdomyolysis that can lead to life-threatening kidney failure.
Aspirin just as effective as statins (and 20x cheaper!)
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for statins is that a recent study in the British Medical Journal showed that aspirin is just as effective as statins for treating heart disease in secondary prevention populations - and 20 times more cost effective! Aspirin is also far safer than statins are, with fewer adverse effects, risks and complications.
The bottom line
- Statin drugs do not reduce the risk of death in 95% of the population, including healthy men with no pre-existing heart disease, women of any age, and the elderly.
- Statin drugs do reduce mortality for young and middle-aged men with pre-existing heart disease, but the benefit is small and not without significant adverse effects, risks and costs.
- Aspirin works just as well as statins do for preventing heart disease, and is 20 times more cost effective.
So what if you are at risk for heart disease and you’d prefer not to take a statin? Other than aspirin, there are many clinically proven ways to prevent heart disease involving simple adjustments to diet and lifestyle. In fact, the recent INTERHEART study which looked at the incidence of heart disease in 52 countries revealed that over 90% of heart disease is preventable by diet and lifestyle modifications.
I’ll discuss these natural methods of preventing heart disease in my next post. Stay tuned!
- Dangers of statin drugs: what you haven’t been told about cholesterol-lowering drugs
- The effect of statins is not due to cholesterol lowering