Seven Mind-Numbing Facts about Statins
1) The NHS spends about £500 million each year on Statins. Enough to build a large hospital each year or pay 16,000 nurses. Most of this money ends up as income for drugs companies, who in turn pass a lot of it on to clinical research units who produce papers that say how great statins are.
2) Statins work by lowering the ‘bad’ cholesterol in our blood. This in turn is expected to lower our risk of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and prevent us from dying of a heart attack or stroke. They may have other effects but we do not know for sure. The fact that they reduce cholesterol has elevated statins to be a "wonder-drug". Experts have told us we should all take them every day. And many of these experts are now rather rich.
3) There is not a strong correlation between people experiencing a heart attack and having high cholesterol. In fact many studies show that low cholesterol may be just as dangerous. Cholesterol is carried by Lipoproteins that can be ‘bad’ (Low Density Lipoproteins) or ‘good’ (High Density Lipoproteins). Recent research has shown that the key attribute of LDL Cholesterol which may be associated with CHD is it’s particle size or density; small-dense is bad, larger less-dense is good. We do not measure this attribute in UK blood tests but we know that it is NOT affected by statins – note that it IS affected by diet. We also know that many populations with the highest cholesterol often have the lowest rates of heart disease.
4) We all need cholesterol. Every cell in our body depends on it in order to grow. Our brains in particular need cholesterol; indeed 25% of the cholesterol in our bodies lives in the brain. Studies have shown that higher cholesterol is associated with better memory function. It would not be surprising if a lowering of cholesterol had a negative effect on brain function.
5) There is a startling lack of research that proves that taking statins will reduce CHD. One of the most widely respected studies (The Heart Protection Study, 2001) made its authors famous and led in part to the recent boom in statin use. The study's authors claimed that statins would save thousands of lives and should be prescribed to anyone with even a modest risk of CHD. What the study actually proved was that about 0.5% of men who already have CHD will live a few months longer if they take a statin. The other 99.5% will not. Men who do not already have CHD cannot expect that taking a statin will prevent them getting it. The all-cause mortality figures show that there is negligible improvement in life expectancy gained by taking a statin, despite the much lauded claims that they will save your life! You are just as likely to die, but you might die of something else. By contrast the positive effect of taking Aspirin has been shown to be much higher.
6) The likelihood of experiencing side-effects from taking statins is estimated at less than 1% by the drug manufacturers and somewhere between 5% and 20% by most GPs. Who would you trust here? The list of possible side-effects on a packet of statins is long and scary. Amazingly it includes Type 2 Diabetes, which in turn increases the risk of CHD as well as being a particularly nasty condition to grow old with. Also, recent research is suggesting a possible link between statins and Parkinson’s disease; remember how the brain needs cholesterol? The risk of taking a statin might be literally mind-numbing.
7) If someone says that your mother may die if she stops taking her statin then you should reply by asking: “So what are the chances of that happening?”. A recent article in the British medical Journal explained how on average the best outcome we can hope for from taking statins is to extend life by a few days. This is really not very impressive, is it?
My thanks to the brilliant Dr Malcolm Kendrick (author of The Great Cholesterol Con and Doctoring Data) for the title of this post and for exposing the scale of the miss-use of statistical data in clinical trial reporting.