Press releases and media reports about statin drugs often dramatically overstate their effectiveness, while understating their risk.
I just read a fantastic article by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick about how deceptive and misleading media reporting on statin drug trials can be.
“In this trial, 10 thousand people were on a statin. If now, an extra 10 million high-risk people worldwide go onto statin treatment, this would save about 50,000 lives each year—that’s a thousand a week.”
That sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it? It’s hard to argue against saving 50,000 lives a year.
But that’s not what the study showed at all. In fact, the following would be a more accurate report on the results of this study, couched in the context of what we know from other statin drug trials:
- Out of 100 high-risk people taking a statin for five years, 98.2 will not benefit at all—but they will be exposed to significant side effects and complications, including muscle damage and diabetes.
- The 1.8 people that do benefit will live an average of 6 months (and a maximum of one year) longer than those that didn’t take the statin.
- These results only apply to the people at highest risk for a future heart attack: middle-aged men who’ve already had a heart attack (aka “secondary prevention”). There is no compelling evidence that statins extend lifespan at all in men without pre-existing heart disease, or women with or without heart disease.
It’s misleading to claim that the HPS study showed that statins “save lives”. According to the HPS data, even in the highest risk populations, the best that statins can do is extend lifespan for a few months for <2 out of 100 people who take them.
For the 2 people that did get the benefit, are the possible side effects (some of which can be debilitating, like muscle fatigue, cognitive decline, and diabetes) worth the additional 6 months of life?
And since there’s no way of knowing in advance whether you’ll be one of the 2 people that benefit, or more likely, one of the 98 that don’t, is the very small chance that you’ll gain an extra 6 months of life by taking a statin for five years worth the considerably higher risk of experiencing significant side effects that could impair the quality of your life during that period?
When you think of it this way, statins start to seem somewhat less like the “wonder drugs” they’ve been made out to be, no?
Let me know what you think in the comments section.