“Doctor, should I take a cholesterol lowering drug?” Although it sounds simple, it is one of the most difficult questions I face in my office. “What are the risks?” “What are the side effects?” Will I have to take it for the rest of my life? Patients are often anxious to know the right answers. These are important issues. And, generally, they don’t get a simple answer. They get a speech.
People are usually not keen on taking drugs if they feel well. Although the title of this blog refers to a patient who is wondering whether a drug might help him, a more common situation would be a patient who is reluctant to take a drug. “Doctor, do you really think I need to take a medication to lower my cholesterol? Aren’t there other ways to lower it? ”
Lately, more and more people are saying: “No I don’t want to take a drug to lower my cholesterol. I’ve heard that they are useless. Besides, I read on the internet that cholesterol does not cause heart disease. They say it’s all a big lie.”
Let me start by trying to simplify the issue a bit. For patients with a history of heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI), coronary artery disease (CAD) or stroke, there is very strong evidence that treatment with a statin drug reduces the risk of death and new cardiovascular events. Studies also show that patients with diabetes benefit from statin therapy. So, often, the decision is not very difficult. Clinical guidelines are very clear on this. These patients should be treated with statins because the evidence for their benefit in secondary prevention is very strong.
Having said that, how about healthy people with no history of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Should they take statin drugs if their blood cholesterol is high? Or, let me rephrase the question; Should they take statins, even if their cholesterol is normal? According to recent news headlines they should. And, not only if their cholesterol is high, but if their general risk for heart disease is elevated.
These recommendations are based on findings from a recent metaanalysis of 27 trials involving 175,000 people, some of whom were at low risk of heart problems. The study, recently published in The Lancet, received a lot of attention because the results show that a huge part of the population may benefit from statin therapy. The researchers said the positives greatly exceeded any side-effects from taking the drugs, such as muscle weakness, diabetes and depression.
Borislava Mihaylova, of the University of Oxford, lead author of the study, said: “In the UK, current practice is generally to give people a statin only if they have had or are considered to be at “high risk” of having a heart attack or a stroke. This study shows that the benefits of statins extend to a much lower-risk group of people than previously thought.”
Professor Colin Baigent, from the Medical Research Council, said: “It is not just about treating raised cholesterol after middle-age. The benefits of statins in people who are currently healthy, but are for some reason at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke, are substantial, and much greater than any of the known risks. People who are at increased risk, perhaps because they are overweight, or smoke, or have high blood pressure, would be better off with lower cholesterol, even if their cholesterol is not considered to be particularly high.”
Professor Baigent believes the routine use of statins would lead to 10,000 fewer heart attacks and strokes a year, including 2,000 fewer deaths in the UK. The small cost of the drugs would be outweighed by NHS savings due to the reduced number of heart attacks and strokes.
The scientists say the imminent revision of NHS guidelines on the use of statins should be used to widen those eligible for routine therapy. At present, statins are restricted to those with at least a 20 percent risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next ten years. However, a commentary in the Lancet says most over-50s are likely to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and so it would be ‘pragmatic’ to use age to prescribe statins instead of costly medical tests.
This all sounds quite simple and really fantastic. By taking one tablet a day, a huge number of the population may be able to reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke. From a health-economic viewpoint this is also great because, according to the statistics, fewer heart attacks will save tax payers money. Almost to good to be true!
But, could there be a downside to all this. So far, muscle pain, has been the most commonly reported side effect of statin therapy. Other uncommon side effects are muscle damage, liver damage, digestive problems, rash or flushing. Recently, however, other side effects have been highlighted. Thus, statin therapy has been associated with the risk of developing diabetes and neurological side effects such as memory loss and confusion. The possible association between statin use and the onset of diabetes mellitus is definitely of concern as recently pointed out by Professor Eric Topol from San Diego, California.
A recently published randomized study indicates that the side effects of statin therapy may be more common than previously thought. The study enrolled 1016 subjects (692 men; 324 women) with LDL levels of 115 to 190 mg/dL and no cardiovascular disease or diabetes who were randomized to two well known statin drugs, or placebo for six months. The results showed a significant adverse effect on energy and fatigue with exertion associated with statin use, which was more common in women than men. The authors also point out that there was a significant relation between the reduced energy reported and actual activity, which could in turn lead to an increase in cardiovascular clinical events.
“These findings are important, given the central relevance of energy and functional status to well-being,” the authors write. They add: “These effects, germane to quality of life, merit consideration when prescribing or contemplating use of statins, particularly in groups without expected net morbidity/mortality benefit, extending to ‘high-risk’ primary prevention and women and elderly persons (including those with coronary artery disease).”
The paper’s first author, Golomb commented: “Statins are fine in patient populations where a mortality benefit has been shown—ie, men under 70 with heart disease or primary-prevention patients with raised C-reactive protein (CRP) or who smoke. But I would think twice for other groups. Primary-prevention patients who don’t smoke or don’t have raised CRP are far more likely to experience an adverse effect than to have a cardiac event. “She estimated that fatigue could affect between 20% and 40% of patients taking statins. “Observational data suggest the effect tracks with the potency of the agent, so it may be more of an issue with the newer, more potent statins,” she added.
Cholesterol lowering drugs in primary prevention – A closer look at the scientific data
Epidemiologic studies have found a graded relationship between the total cholesterol concentration and coronary risk. This relationship is much stronger for individuals with known coronary heart disease (CHD) than those without manifestations of such disease. Data from Pekannen, J, Linn, S, Heiss, G, et al, N Engl J Med 1990; 322:1700
According to the lipid hypothesis, lowering of blood cholesterol will reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Let’s take a closer look at the scientific data that have tested this hypothesis. If you don’t like all the details, you can jump to the final chapter of this article.
Effects of diet and lifestyle. Lifestyle modifications may reduce levels of LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C). However, no studies have shown that this translates into less risk of heart disease or death. The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT) studied 12,866 high-risk men. An intervention that included dietary advice to reduce cholesterol levels did not significantly reduce mortality due to cardiovascular disease nor all-cause mortality.
Drug treatment.The first trials with cholesterol lowering drugs in primary prevention were performed in the late seventies and early eighties, before the so-called statin era. Some of them showed significant reductions in cardiovascular events although there was not a significant effect on mortality. However, there was a disturbing increase in mortality due to other reasons than heart disease among patients receiving active drug therapy. The higher death rate from noncardiac causes raised a concern regarding the safety of cholesterol-lowering therapy, particularly in a relatively low-risk population.
The West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study (The WOSCOPS trial) was published in 1995. It was designed to evaluate the effect of pravastatin (40 mg/day) for five years on the rate of MI and death due to CHD in 6.595 men with elevated cholesterol, but no prior history of heart disease. These were the main criteria for inclusion of patients