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The Cholesterol Debate part 2: What if statins don’t help you live longer?

A topic that frequently crops up in my reading about overdiagnosis and overtreatment is the use of statins to lower cholesterol. I’ve questioned this idea for many years and I worry about people I know who are taking statins because of the side effects they cause.

In my previous post, I wrote about an Australian TV program, Catalyst, that recently aired a two-part series called The Heart of the Matter. Part one was about Dietary Villains and part two was about the Cholesterol Drug War.

In part two, Cholesterol Drug War, they begin by saying that forty million people around the world take statins to lower their cholesterol and that most people won’t benefit from them.

How do statins work?

Statins are highly profitable for the drug companies with between fifteen to twenty-five billion dollars spent on them every year. They work by inhibiting an enzyme called Reductase which the body requires to produce several essential molecules such as cholesterol.  Co-enzyme Q10, another one of these essential molecules, is important for heart muscle function and because it’s production is also reduced, this may be why some of the side effect of statins include reduced energy and muscle pain.

One of the doctors interviewed described cholesterol: as the most common organic molecule by weight in your brain, that is in every cell wall, and is a precursor for hormone production.

Are they safe?

It may be that statins may help a small number of people (1 or 2 out of 100) live longer if they’ve had a heart attack or stroke, but some doctors believe the data isn’t there to show that healthy people will benefit from taking them. However, in 2012 the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists Collaboration used different methods to examine old data, mostly from drug companies, and concluded that statins were effective for many people. Despite criticism of their report, many cardiologists refer to it.

For people who haven’t been diagnosed with heart disease, taking statins may help reduce the risk of a cardiovascular event but may also increase your risk for other  diseases like diabetes. They are less beneficial for women and the elderly, and women are at a higher risk for complications. The show makes the point several times that statins won’t help you live longer.

According to a report that the show refers to, seventy-five percent of people being prescribed statins (some thirty million people), are in the low to moderate risk category and will not have their lives extended as a result of taking these medications.

However, statins can affect your health in other ways such as muscle weakness and loss, memory loss, and low energy. When patients complain, they often find that their doctors insist that their side effects are not caused by the statins and that they should continue taking them. Although patients are supposed to take these medications for life there isn’t a lot of information on long term side effects.

The credibility of clinical drug trials can be questionable because of how the studies are done and how they are being paid for, so reports about side effects may not be as evident and the drugs may not be as safe as we are being told they are. Drug companies are fined billions of dollars for illegal activities every year. Because funding for the National Institutes for Health was reduced in the 1980’s, drug companies now fund up to 85% of drug trials, so it’s easy to see the possibility that these trials will show that the drugs are more effective, and report less side effects. It also would be fair to say that because drug companies have a financial interest in the outcome, the science of the drug trials can be tainted and not necessarily in the public’s best interest. However, if the drug companies don’t fund these trials, tax payers would have to.

In 2004 the definition of high cholesterol was changed when the total cholesterol limit was reduced from 6.5 mmol/1 to 5.0 mmol/1 and millions more people were prescribed statins on the theory that “less is better” and now had additional health-related worries. According to the TV show, eight out of the nine panel members who decided to change the definition were found to have ties to drug companies.

What about the doctors?

High profile doctors are recruited to promote medications, and drug company reps encourage doctors to prescribe them, so in order to form a more unbiased opinion doctors need to do their own research and should have access to the ALL the clinical trial data from the drug companies. Because of the potential for litigation, many doctors follow the treatment recommendations even though they don’t agree with them.

What will benefit your heart?

Exercise. There’s that word again! But the positive effects of exercise have been proven to be more beneficial than statins for low-risk people by helping them to prevent heart disease and live longer.

Patients are people, too!
Statins are an example of a medication that may help people with a disease, but are being prescribed as a means to prevent disease and in this context it is not only unhelpful, but can cause harm.

Are you taking statins to lower your cholesterol? How do you feel? Do you experience muscle aches and pains and other side effects? Too many recommendations for our health are coming from businesses with a vested interest. Until this changes, we need to do our own research with a view to finding out who is influencing the recommendations, and also to work with doctors who are not influenced by drug companies primarily interested in selling more of their own product.

Several of the books I list on my books page cover cholesterol screening: Overdiagnosed, Seeking Sickness, Selling Sickness, and Rethinking Aging.

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