Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Do Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Save Lives?

If you read my last post about cholesterol-lowering drugs, then you understand some of the problems that can arise from their use.  Statins can produce some nasty side effects.  But side effects aside, statins save lives right?  I mean, doctors prescribe them to just about everyone, they must be effective.  Not quite... the story is not as simple as it may seem.

When looking at the statin drug clinical trials, it's important to keep a few things in mind.  Firstly, and most importantly... total mortality is more important than heart disease mortality.  If a drug prevents you from dying of heart disease but doesn't affect your chances of dying in general, then that drug is not worth taking.  What's most important is whether or not the drug will extend your life.  Secondly, you must consider that different groups of people may respond differently to the drug.  Women, middle-aged men, the elderly, and those with preexisting heart disease may all respond differently to treatment. 

I'd like to begin by talking about women... both because I like women, and because they don't respond well to statins.  Although many statin studies notoriously neglect to reveal the all-cause death data for women, there are a few studies that do.  Check out the Scandinavian Simvastatin Survivial Study (4S), which was one of the most positive trials to date.  The big pharma folks must have been partying it up when this one came out.  This was a secondary prevention trial, meaning that participants all had pre-existing heart disease (previous heart attack or angina).  For future reference, a primary prevention trial would be an experiment in which the participants did not have pre-existing heart disease.  So, half of them took simvastatin and half of them took a placebo.  The results were great across the board: heart attack numbers were reduced, along with deaths from heart disease and all-cause mortality.  But there was one group that clearly didn't benefit:  women.  Over the duration of the 5.4 years of the trial, 27 (6.6%) of the women taking the statin died, while only 25 (6%) of the women taking the placebo died.  So despite the rest of the data, which was very supportive of statins, there was actually a slight increased risk of death in women from taking the statin.  As you'll soon see, this finding is consistent throughout all of the statin trials, yet it is completely ignored by mainstream medicine.  These drugs simply don't work for women.