www.Medtipster.com Source: Boston Globe – 1.24.2011
It’s a common scenario: A 60-year-old woman is told she has high cholesterol but has no other risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, or a smoking habit. Should she take a statin to lower her cholesterol?
Many doctors say, why not? But a review study by the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit research organization, suggests otherwise. The review, which analyzed 14 trials involving the use of statins to prevent heart disease in low-risk patients, found only “limited evidence” that the drugs provide significant benefits, especially in women, and urged that “caution should be taken when prescribing statins” to prevent heart disease.
The cholesterol-lowering drugs – which include atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and simvastatin (Zocor) – have clearly been shown to reduce heart attacks, strokes, and deaths in higher risk patients such as those with diabetes or established heart disease. And they have minimal side effects.
In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that low-risk patients with high cholesterol consider taking a statin if lifestyle changes, such as increased exercise or weight loss, don’t work to bring cholesterol levels down.
But the Cochrane review study – written by British researchers – calls that practice into question, highlighting “shortcomings” in studies that found clear benefits in anyone who took statins to lower high cholesterol levels.
“The potential adverse effects of statins among people at low risk of [cardiovascular disease] CVD are poorly reported and unclear,” the authors wrote.
Other experts, though, disagree. “I think they make grand pronouncements that are wrong,” says Dr. Chris Cannon, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who participated in another recent review study of statin use in low-risk patients published in the November issue of Lancet. (Cannon has accepted research grants from statin manufacturers and served on an advisory board for Bristol-Myers Squibb, which makes the statin Pravachol.)
The Lancet study found that high-risk and low-risk patients who take statins to lower their cholesterol can reduce their risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or heart procedure by 25 percent.
In absolute risk terms, statin users who don’t have heart disease would lower their yearly risk of having heart complications from 1.8 percent to 1.4 percent. Those who have already been diagnosed with heart disease would lower their yearly risk from 5.6 percent to 4.5 percent – and those with type 2 diabetes from about 5 percent to about 4 percent.
The lower your heart disease risk, the smaller the benefits you’ll receive from statins. That means the risk of side effects will play a greater role in determining whether you should take the drug. The Cochrane report found that statins didn’t increase the risk of cancer and posed a small risk of rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition involving the breakdown of muscles.
The biggest side effect, severe muscle soreness, occurs in about 3 to 5 percent of users, though some research indicates the incidence may be higher in women and for those who take higher doses or more potent statins.