Cholesterol-Reducing Drugs: The Questionable Benefits of Statins

The benefits of statins — cholesterol-reducing drugs — may be outweighed by the negatives for patients who don’t have pre-existing heart disease.

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Cholesterol-reducing drugs called statins may be much less effective than once thought.

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Statins, a kind of cholesterol reducing drug such as Lipitor, Mevacor, and Crestor, accounted for $14.3 billion of U.S. sales in 2009. More staggering than that figure, though, is that the drug has shown to benefit only a fraction of its users. The Saturday Evening Post (May/June 2012) points to studies in which statins failed to significantly reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke in high cholesterol patients who did not have pre-existing heart disease. “It doesn’t make sense to treat all these low-risk people with statins,” says Dr. Eli Farhi, an assistant professor of cardiology at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

While there is no debating the benefits of statins for secondary prevention patients (those with pre-existing heart disease), the drug’s worth in primary prevention is questionable when weighing the advantages with the potential downsides. The article reveals that common side effects include muscle pain, increased risk of diabetes, memory loss, and liver damage. Additionally, it appears that the correlation between low cholesterol and a reduced risk of heart attack is not what was once thought. “The effect [of statins] is indeed ‘cosmetic,’ improving their cholesterol numbers without producing any measurable difference in clinical outcome,” says Farhi.