Recent studies have shown that the symptoms of heart disease may differ between men and women. For example, women are less likely than men to have chest pain while suffering an acute heart attack (acute myocardial infarction). This may delay diagnosis and may partly explain why women seem to fare worse than men under these circumstances. Furthermore, the role of risk factors for heart disease may be different between the two genders. It has also been suggested that treatment with cholesterol lowering drugs, so-called statins may be less effective for women than men, in particular in primary prevention (individuals without known cardiovascular disease).
We had the pleasure to address these important issues recently in my hometown Reykjavik, Iceland, when visited by Barbara H. Roberts MD who is a prominent expert in this field. Dr. Roberts is director of the Women’s Cardiac Center at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I. and associate clinical professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She has written two hugely interesting books, How to Keep From Breaking Your Heart: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Cardiovascular Disease and The Truth About Statins: Risks and Alternatives to Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs.
I ran across Dr. Roberts recent book on statins while visiting New York last December for a cardiovascular meeting. I became very fond of it because it is extremely well written and can easily be read both by laymen and professionals. Her discussion is objective, evidence based, and she does not jump to any conclusions. Although Dr. Roberts has a point to make, her writing is careful and unbiased. Of course, the book has a strong message which I know many of my cardiologist colleagues will not agree with.
The internet may affect our lives more than we sometimes realize. A few days after I finished reading Dr. Roberts book I mentioned it in one of my blog posts because I felt it had an important message to everyone interested in cardiovascular disease and modern-day health care. Statins are used by millions of people worldwide. Whether we like it or not, we have an obligation to look at both the positive and negative effects of this therapy.
By coincidence, Dr Roberts read my article and we became acquainted. Six months later she arrived in Reykjavik to give two talks, a public lecture on how women may reduce their risk of heart disease, and another lecture at aimed at professionals at our University Hospital on statin therapy.
How to Keep From Breaking Your Heart: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Cardiovascular Disease
Dr. Roberts gave her first talk on the evening June 18th 2013. It was attended by more than 300 people, mostly women. I was really proud by the huge interest. Thank you, Icelandic women for showing so much interest in how to improve your health and reduce the risk of heart disease. Dr. Roberts gave a fascinating overview of cardiovascular disease, risk factors, lifestyle and prevention. It was a memorable evening.
She started by addressing the anatomy of the normal heart, the coronary vessels and the blood circulation. She then discussed important symptoms and disease concepts such as angina pectoris, myocardial infarction or heart attack, congestive heart failure, and palpitations. She touched on the underlying pathology of cardiovascular disease and introduced important disease mechanisms like atherosclerosis, plaque rupture and clot formation.
Dr. Roberts then went on to describe how the symptoms of an acute heart attack may differ between men and women. Men are more likely to experience chest pain than women. Women are more likely to have nausea, back, shoulder, abdominal or neck pain than men. Women are also more likely to have no chest pain, and just shortness of breath or sometimes fatigue.
Dr. Roberts went through most of the known modifiable risk factors for heart disease like smoking, high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, the metabolic syndrome and inflammation.
Dr. Roberts dedicated a part of her talk to treatment with statin drugs. Statins are frequently used to lower cholesterol and to reduce the risk of heart disease. It is her opinion that the benefits of statins have been greatly exaggerated and that their dangers have been greatly downplayed. She mentioned the most common side effects of statin therapy like muscle pain, rhabdomyolysis, cognitive dysfunction, tendon and nerve damage, diabetes, liver and kidney damage, fatigue, cataracts and congenital defects in babies exposed before birth. She summarized the results from clinical trials addressing the effects of statins in women. She underlined that no study has ever shown that treating women who do not have established vascular disease or diabetes with a cholesterol lowering medicine lowers the risk of cardiac death or cardiac events.
Dr. Roberts concluded that high levels of LDL cholesterol appear less predictive of cardiovascular risk in women than in men. In women, HDL cholesterol appears more predictive of risk than any other lipid level. She emphasized that abnormal blood cholesterol is but one of many risk factors for cardiovascular disease and that it´s not all about the LDL-cholesterol.
After covering the health risks of diabetes, inflammation, obesity and the metabolic syndrome Dr. Roberts went on to talk about the influence of diets. She mentioned a few dietary fictions like “Eating foods high in cholesterol raises your cholesterol” and “Low fat diets are good for your heart“. She also mentioned a few dietary facts like “Low fat diets lower HDL cholesterol so they are NOT heart healthy. You need to eat heart healthy fats” and “You can eat your way through any cholesterol lowering medicine“. Finally she underlined the strong scientific evidence indicating that a Mediterranean type diet reduces cardiovascular risk.
Dr Roberts concluded her lecture with this message:
Prevention of Heart Disease Made Easy:
- If you smoke, STOP
- If your cholesterol is high, get it down
- If your blood pressure is high, get it down
- If your blood sugar is high, get it down
- If your weight is high, get it down
- Do moderate exercise 30 minutes/day
- Eat a heart healthy diet
- Pick your parents wisely
The Truth About Statins: Risks and Alternatives to Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs
Dr. Barbara Roberts gave her second lecture in Reykjavik on June 19th at Landspitali University Hospital. Again she did a wonderful job with a highly informative and provocative talk. Unfortunately, only about 40 people attended, among them only a handful of cardiologists. I know doctors are busy people, but I have to admit that I would have loved to see more colleagues. Statins are the most frequently prescribed drugs by cardiologists all over the world. Many of us believe they are our most important weapon when it comes to pharmacological treatment of cardiovascular disease. So, I can understand that it may be unpleasant to hear about their presumed bluntness.
Dr. Roberts started by going through many of the advantages and disadvantages of statin therapy. She quoted Doctor Rita Redberg: “There are millions of women on a drug with no known benefit and risks that are detrimental to their lifestyle — and no one is talking about it”. She also quoted Dr. Sidney Blumenthal: “The totality of the available biologic, observational and clinical-trial evidence strongly supports the selective use of statin therapy in adults demonstrated to be at high risk for heart disease”. So, “are statins angels or devils” she asked?
Next Dr. Roberts took us through the history of the lipid hypothesis, from the work of the German pathologist, Rudolph Virchow on atherosclerosis in 1856, to the modern day clinical trials. She underscored the difference between absolute and relative risk reduction. She summarized data from clinical trials on the use of statins in secondary prevention. The result was that statins significantly reduce the number of cardiac events among individuals with cardiovascular disease, although the effect appears less pronounced among women than men. Again, she underscored the fact that clinical trials have not shown that treating women who do not have established vascular disease or diabetes with a cholesterol-lowering medicine lowers the risk of cardiac death or cardiac events.
Dr. Roberts then went through all the most common side effects of statin therapy. Unfortunately, this list appears to be growing, not unsurprisingly though, considering the huge number of people taking these drugs. Recently the increased risk of diabetes and cognitive dysfunction associated with statin therapy has been highlighted. Finally, she talked about possible alternatives to statin therapy. Again she underscored the positive effects of the Mediterranean diet.
Dr. Roberts final conclusions were:
- Statins confer a small reduction in the risk of heart attacks and in some studies of dying of heart disease in those with established disease. The benefit is less in women than men.
- They confer much less benefit in men without disease and none at all in healthy women.
- The Mediterranean Diet is more effective than statins in lowering risk, WITHOUT ANY SIDE EFFECTS.
The Bottom Line
We, cardiologists tend to focus on the positive effects of statins. This is completely reasonable because clinical trials have shown that these drugs are very effective under certain conditions, and they improve the prognosis of patients with cardiovascular disease. Statins may also be effective among individuals at high risk for developing cardiovascular disease, such as those with diabetes. Nobody doubts the important role of statins in patients with familial hypercholesterolemia (FH).
Sometimes it is much easier for doctors to prescribe a drug than not to do it. Furthermore, the positive effects of statins are highly emphasized by the medical community, and these drugs are generally considered well tolerated. I am much more likely to be criticized by my colleagues if I don´t put a patient on statin therapy who might benefit, than if I put someone on such therapy who will probably not benefit from it. Sometimes we forget the words of our ancestors: Primum non nocere; first do no harm.
Sooner or later we will have to face the fact that many people have side effects from statin therapy. Often, these effects are not obvious. As doctors, we have to be alert and monitor patients for such side effects.
It has been pointed out by some of my colleagues that highlighting the negative effects of statins may encourage some patients to stop taking their drugs. Obviously, if these are individuals who are benefitting from their therapy, this may cause harm. On the other hand, providing truthful unbiased information to our patients can never be ethically wrong. Indeed, such information is necessary for shared decision making. Otherwise, our patients will not be able to make a truly informed decision on whether they want a certain treatment or not.
Finally, I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Barbara Roberts for visiting Iceland and sharing her knowledge and experience. Again, I recommend everyone interested in cardiovascular disease and modern-day health care to read her book on statin drugs. It is a strong reminder of our limited knowledge of the long-term effects of drugs that are being prescribed to millions of people worldwide.