Hardly a week goes by without some report claiming that statins are bad for you.
If you believed everything you read, you'd think that these highly effective cholesterol-lowering medicines are to blame for all manner of awful side-effects that are significantly worse than any possible benefit. You'd wonder if it was even worth taking them given the exaggerated risks, yet the evidence that high cholesterol leads to a narrowing of the arteries which in turn can cause a heart attack or stroke is incontrovertible. Looking down a microscope and seeing how an artery has become blocked should give anyone the proof they need.
Ever since I joined HEART UK in 2010, I have been a firm believer that statins are one of the single greatest forms of medication widely available; both highly effective and very cheap.
For anyone with the inherited form of high cholesterol- Familial Hypercholesterolaemia (FH), medication such as statins are a lifelong need to manage high cholesterol and prevent premature death. FH is not caused by diet or lifestyle and can be fatal at extreme levels if left untreated. Keeping active and eating a healthy diet are very important to keep a healthy level of low cholesterol but for people with FH, this is still not enough.
Individuals of any age can be affected by FH, as the gene is passed down generations. At HEART UK we hear all too often of families not knowing they have an FH gene and have had to bury young children or the young who have suffered fatal heart attacks. We are often contacted for support and guidance by families who want to know why a loved one in their 20s has died so young and why they had such high cholesterol levels.
Once identified and effectively treated, life for someone with FH is a normal lifespan. But early identification is absolutely key.
For the majority of adults, however, high cholesterol is a result of diet and lifestyle, of an increasingly sedentary way of life, eating a large amount of saturated fat and factors such as smoking. With a better diet - such as the Mediterranean Diet low in saturated fat, high in fruit and vegetables and in addition to more exercise, cholesterol will come down. Statins are not a replacement for these important changes to the way someone lives, but an additional help when the risk of a heart attack and stroke remains high.
An extensive study very recently done by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine concluded this summer that negative stories exaggerating the side-effects of statins contribute to almost a quarter of a million people from taking the cholesterol-lowering medication. The study claims that stopping statins by people who need the medication led to 2,000 heart attacks and strokes. Behind every heart attack and stroke is a real person, with a real family around them torn apart by something that could easily have been avoided had they not been misled by the scare stories.
All medicines have side effects and risks, this includes commonly taken high street pain killers like paracetamol and aspirin which are far greater used than statins yet rarely questioned and certainly don't attract the negativity like statins do. Muscle ache is often claimed to be caused by a statin, but so too is getting older and altering the dosage and potentially the type of statin can help reduce any potential side effect of a statin.
Earlier in September, The Lancet published a review which warns that the benefits of statins have been repeatedly underestimated, and the harms exaggerated, due to misinterpretation of the evidence. This major review should give patients and doctors the confidence in statins as the life savers they are. There should be no doubt as to the benefits of taking a statin to reduce cholesterol and we now have incontrovertible evidence from over 30 years. Statins are without doubt an effective and safe drug with a crucial role in helping prevent cardiovascular disease.
We have concrete evidence that statins save lives, that the benefits outweigh any risk and most side effects can be managed. It is time for the controversy to come to an end; those seeking big pharma trials bias will not find one - the majority of statins are off patent and so cheap that there's no big money to be made anymore.
Those that seek to keep the controversy going do so, in my opinion, for their own benefit: to give lucrative lectures and talks; in newspapers, books and journal sales, fuelling their own egos with no regard whatsoever for the lives that are taken away because someone was needlessly put off taking their medicine.