Statins: The Fix-All ‘Wonder Drug’?
With their cholesterol-lowering super powers, many are jumping for joy at the news that statin tablets could soon be prescribed to thousands more patients each year.
Earlier this month, the NHS drew up new draft guidelines1 suggesting that statins – currently handed out to lower levels of LDL, the so-called ‘bad cholesterol’ – be prescribed to people with just a 10% risk of developing heart problems over the next decade of their lives.
Statins the widely prescribed drug
Already Britain’s most widely prescribed drug, it’s thought that statins save 7,000 lives each year2. Yet doctors currently only recommend popping the pills if you have a 20% chance of developing cardiovascular disease, based on risk factors such as age, weight and sex.
So, why the call for mass treatment? Why treat people who are 90% likely to not develop a problem? Surely, when the statin bill is already at £450m, it will cost an already strained NHS millions of pounds each year, right?
Well, NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – clearly think the pros outweigh the cons. You see, statins not only combat coronary heart disease, but they also lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The NHS also claim they have remarkably low levels of side effects.
It all sounds fabulous in theory, doesn’t it? Especially when cardiovascular disease remains the leading killer in the UK, claiming around 180,000 lives per year. And, really, for many people, statins are a true wonder drug.
In fact, just last week, researchers revealed that potent versions of the pill could significantly improve survival rates for heart attack victims3. Meanwhile, a study by Oxford University supported the view that low-risk patients stood to benefit from taking statins. One of the researchers, Professor Rory Collins, said that up to five million people could begin taking statins if the new NICE guidance is implemented, even going as far as to say that everyone over 50 should start popping the pills.
The British Heart Foundation also seems to support the idea that more and more of us take statins. Prof Peter Weissberg, from the charity, agreed that more people stood to benefit from taking statins, stating: “The current guidance weighed the benefits of taking a statin against what was then the considerable cost to the health service.
“However, as most people who have a heart attack or stroke have average cholesterol levels and since statins are now much cheaper, it makes sense to reconsider the threshold.”
Yet, is mass prescribing statins really as great as it sounds? Surely there are setbacks? And what about the alternatives, the ways we ourselves can treat high cholesterol, without resorting to drugs?
GP Dr Malcolm Kendrick, author of The Great Cholesterol Con, is well known for his negative view on statins4. He sites the fact that there are a good deal more side effects than the NHS claims (including an upset stomach, muscular aches and pains, headaches and insomnia, as well as rare but potentially deadly side effects, including kidney failure), with a Dutch study5 confirming that more than a quarter of patients do experience side effects to some degree.
There’s also the fact that there is little or no evidence that women benefit from taking statins, so is blanket advice suggesting all over 50s take them really the right way forward?
Meanwhile, what about the fact that we can often boost our own health – and improve “bad cholesterol” levels – through our diets and exercise? Shouldn’t we take responsibility for our own health and body before resorting to pills?
Of course, for some people, statins really are life-saving miracles, and the pros far outweigh the cons. But, for the rest of us, it pays to be well-advised before popping any old pill your GP prescribes.
As Prof Simon Maxwell, of the British Pharmacological Society, told the BBC: “Patients should be helped to make a truly informed decision about the benefits and risks of taking long-term preventative therapy that will not make them feel any better in the short term.
“We should avoid misapplication of such of such a recommendation without proper individual patient counselling.”
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