Statins: Are they worth it?

Posted by Jo Waters

Statins have been hailed as wonder drugs, helping reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But do the side effects outweigh the benefits?

StatinsChances are if you're over 40 and your cholesterol is slightly raised, your doctor will have suggested you take a statin.

When your GP gives you the hard-sell about how these cholesterol-lowering drugs have reduced heart attacks in the past 15 years it seems pretty convincing.

The statistics are impressive. There’s at least a 30 per cent reduced risk of suffering a heart attack and a 20 per cent reduction in stroke risk, just by popping a pill every day.

One study in Israel has even found there are benefits of taking statins even if you don’t even have any problems, showing a 45 per cent difference in the death rate between those who took them and those who didn’t.

But these drugs can have debilitating side effects including muscle pain and damage, gastro-intestinal problems, headaches, joint pains, nerve damage and loss of feeling in the hands of feet.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the drug safety watchdog, issued warning about five other side effects. These include memory loss, depression, sleep disturbance, sexual dysfunction and a rare lung disease. These warnings are now included on patient information leaflets inside pill packets.

The MHRA recorded 3,505 reports of suspected adverse reactions involving statins and cognitive function, memory and nerve damage between 2005 and 2009.

Some experts claim this is just the tip of the iceberg and many more cases may go unreported. Many statins users put their symptoms down to old age or some other medical complaint.

One study conducted in a GP practice in Gloucester in 2009, for example, analysed the records of 8,000 patients and found only one recorded case of muscle damage due to statins use. But when 92 of these patients were interviewed and asked specifically about their symptoms, another 19 new cases were diagnosed.

Statins are drugs you have to take for the rest of your life – so the side effects are not just a short-term inconvenience but something you could have to live with for 30 years or more. Many people don’t have any side effects at all. For those that do, are they worth putting up with for a longer life?

Some cholesterol sceptics such as Dr Malcolm Kendrick, author of the best-selling The Great Cholesterol Con, dispute that taking statins will significantly extend your life. He says that even if a man who had a heart attack and was at high risk of another, took statins for 40 years, he would only extend his life by 17.5 days.

Dr Kendrick isn’t alone. A small but growing number of medical professionals agree.

His views are regarded highly controversial in the medical profession. But, if he’s right, I don’t think the average 80-year-old struggling to cope with side effects would think statins were worth all the bother.

Chat to any group of older people on statins and there will be many complaining of muscle pain and mental fogginess. My parents are in their mid-70s and say in their social circle the talk often turns to statins and whether they are worth it.

My dad has stopped taking his and walks three miles a day instead . He doesn’t smoke or drink, isn’t overweight and although his blood pressure is raised, it is being controlled by drugs. When he was on statins he complained of mental fogginess and muscle pains and felt down. Now that he’s stopped the statins, the symptoms have disappeared and he appears to be in perfect health. Some would argue he’s taking a gamble. He says he’s weighed up the risks and the benefits and plumped for a better quality of life. Who can blame him for that?

Obviously if your cholesterol is sky high and you’ve got other risk factors for a heart attack (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight and smoking) it would seem sensible to give them a go. But what if your cholesterol is only slightly raised and you don’t have any other risk factors?

I’ll definitely be looking for self-help measures to lower my cholesterol rather than popping a pill. Exercising twice a day for just 10 minutes at a time can raise “good” HDL cholesterol which protects against heart disease. The Portfolio diet based on oats, soya protein and almonds can reduce your cholesterol as effectively as a low dose statin.

Statins are good for some, but why not use your common sense and work out for yourself if they are best for you?

See the message boards at Taking and Statin side effect suffers and you’ll find many personal testimonies of those who have struggled with the side effects of statins.

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