While cholesterol-lowering statins are undeniably life-saving treatments for people with menacing cardiovascular illnesses, statins are often prescribed to healthy people as a precaution. In fact, one in four Americans take statins regularly and one editorial published earlier this year in The Lancet said that all people should take them. Research is starting to pile up in the other direction and one researcher in the United Kingdom has announced that, for healthy people or with minimal cardiovascular issues, diet is better for controlling heart disease than statins are.
Professor Kausik Ray, from St. George's Healthcare Trust in London, has publically come out against statins as a preventative measure. He says that statins are indispensable for people with serious heart problems, particularly those who have had heart attacks. That group makes up only a small percentage of people prescribed statins. Many people are given statins because they are 'at risk,' but the way to qualify 'at-risk' patients is very difficult.
Ray is one of many experts interviewed by documentarian Justin Smith for his upcoming film Statin Nation. Before directing the movie, Smith was a personal trainer and nutritional coach before writing the book $29 Billion Reasons to Lie About Cholesterol, in 2009. His book found that the increase of statin use has not decreased heart disease rates at all.
The use of statins has indeed been controversial. While some claim that statins have helped ward off illness for hundreds of thousands of people, still others claim that the negative side effects of statins are not given enough weight. One large clinical trial of the medication rosuvastatin, Crestor, found in 2008 that the statin lowered the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 44 percent in healthy subjects. Despite the seemingly positive numbers, critics charge that, because the trial was ended early, benefits could be overstated.
Furthermore, meta-analyses of statins have been shaky. The Lancet editorial, for example, analyzed 27 clinical trials involving 165,149 people, and found that side effects were minimal at worst. But, in one of the studies analyzed by The Lancet, potential participants were given statins for a few weeks to see how they tolerated them. If they suffered side effects, they were excluded from the trial. A majority of the studies were funded by pharmaceutical companies as well.
Statins can increase the risk of hemorrhagic strokes, muscle pain and severe but rare liver and kidney complications. The United States Department of Agriculture found that statins could also increase the risk of diabetes and memory loss.
Still, it is unlikely that the issue of statins will be solved anytime soon. A large chunk of heart attacks occur in people who are considered low-risk. Still, Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief editor of the Archives of Internal Medicine, said to Scientific American that they are a lot of people who are on statins right now who see a minimal benefit from the drug.