Statins - what are the risks? | The Body of Evidence

Statins - what are the risks?

What are the risks of taking statins? If you listen to the news you would think that these medications are
similar to rat poison. But the truth is that the rates of side effects are quite low.

 The real danger though to these stories though is a new report that found that negative news stories of statins
are associated with people stopping their medications, which leads to a spike in heart attacks.

 So why is it important to get the facts right? Because lives are at stake.

 You can read my full article here: http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-concerns-about-the...

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I'm often asked why I bother doing
media work. It is often a thankless task. The pay isn't great - when there is
any. The hours are long. You get abused by Internet trolls. The reason I do it
is because of a sincerely held belief that good medical information makes a
difference in people's lives.

 That's why I was interested to see a
new study that came out in the European Heart Journal. The study found a
link between negative news stories about statins and people's decisions to stop
their medication abruptly. Worse, stopping statins suddenly led to a rise in
heart attacks and death. Although you can never prove that it was the negative news
stories that made people stop, it is undeniable that what we see and hear on
television or on the Internet affects the decisions we make.

 Perhaps no cardiac medication is more
controversial than statins. Sadly, I have no idea why. Nobody gets worked up
about their blood pressure medication or their diabetes medications, but
mention statins and people have surprisingly strong opinions.

The truth is that the rate of side
effects with statins is actually quite low. There are two main side effects,
the first being that they can cause liver damage. A 2006 review in Circulation summarized the
results of 35 randomized trials containing a total of 74,000 patients. It found
that liver damage occurs in about 1 per cent of people, and that is actually
not any different than with a placebo. In such cases, if the medication is
stopped, that damage reverses itself. Permanent damage is exceedingly rare.

The other major concern is that
statins can affect the muscles. Here the situation is murkier. A 2013 randomized trial in Circulation found that 19 per
cent of statin users complained of muscle pain (compared to 10 per cent for
placebo). However, the trial found that there was no difference in muscle
strength or exercise capacity in statin and non-statin users. Also, while the
patients do suffer muscle pains, they often have no biochemical evidence of
muscle damage. The 2006 review in Circulation found that
elevations of muscle enzymes occurred in less than 1 per cent of people and
that cases of severe muscle destruction, termed rhabdomyolysis, occurred in
only 0.2 per cent of people taking statins. Although the data is a bit
scattered, it would appear that a minority of people prescribed statins
experience some muscle pain, but that this rarely leads to any documented
muscle damage or destruction.

Over the years, many reports have
tried to link statins with other side effects, including memory loss, renal
failure, cancer, bleeding and cataracts. None of these concerns have been borne
out in subsequent analyses. The one new development is the relatively recent
finding that statins increase the risk of diabetes. However, one analysis found that for every new case of diabetes that
was seen, three heart attacks were prevented. So the benefits still outweigh
the risks.

 It is also worth mentioning that most
side effects of statins happen within the first few months of starting the
medication. It is not the result of toxicity that accumulates with time. Thus,
if you've been on a statin for a while, it is unlikely that you will experience
any of these side effects.

 If you examine all the evidence, you
find that statins undeniably reduce the risk of a heart attack in people with
cardiac disease. Though the risk of side effects is not zero, it is very small.
The problem is that much of the media coverage of statins is based not on
facts, but on fear.

 

And if that fear leads people to stop
their medications, then more heart attacks and deaths will be the result. So
that's why I do what I do, because countering bad health information could save
lives.