Cholesterol-lowering statins have become one of the most popular ‘just in case’ drugs on the market. They’re handed out to anyone who may be at risk from developing heart disease – which, in the eyes of the doctor, will be pretty much everyone over the age of fifty or so.
So it’s not surprising to learn that thirty six million Americans take a statin every day, generating annual sales of $15.5bn for the manufacturers, and making two statins - Lipitor and Zocor - the top two best-selling drugs in the USA.
Statin use has been increasing by an average of twelve percent a year, and it’s a trend that is likely to continue while medicine sees almost all of us as being at risk from raised cholesterol levels.
There’s evidence to suggest that those of us with a diagnosed heart condition may benefit from a statin, but this is a small fraction of those who take the drug.
A new Harvard study has discovered that just eight per cent of people taking a statin had a heart condition – the rest were merely considered to be at risk, a judgment that was entirely subjective, and based on very little evidence.
The Harvard researchers looked at the results of eight trials, and discovered that the statins didn’t reduce the number of deaths, even among those with a known heart condition.
The drugs had a marginally positive effect on men, although it works out that sixty seven people would need to take the drug for five years in order to prevent one heart attack. It had no benefit whatsoever among ten thousand nine hundred and ninety women who took it.
All of this suggests that far too many people are taking a statin, and with no positive outcome. Instead of being the universal ‘just-in-case’ drug, its use should be restricted to people who have been diagnosed with a heart condition, the researchers conclude.
Their findings follow on from last week’s discovery that statins may cause Parkinson’s, and from earlier studies that suggest the drugs may be causing the heart conditions they’re supposed to be preventing.
(Source: The Lancet, 2007; 369: 268-9).