What the Media Isn’t Telling You About Statin Drug Trials

What the Media Isn’t Telling You About Statin Drug Trials

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Press releases and media reports about statin drugs often dramatically overstate their effectiveness, while understating their risk.

statins
The information we have on the risk and effectiveness of statins is not complete. iofoto/iStock/Thinkstock

I just read a fantastic article by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick about how deceptive and misleading media reporting on statin drug trials can be.

Dr. Kendrick uses the Heart Protection Study (HPS) as an example. From the press release for the study:

“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 see any benefit to their heart health 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?

For a more on the effectiveness of statins, see this article I wrote a while back. I also encourage you to read the full article by Dr. Kendrick. 

Let me know what you think in the comments section.

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  1. lol. doc put my healthy neurotic ex on these (his father had a h a many years ago). within 2 weeks his vision turned BLUE and he began shaking etc. chucked them, spent day in bed and moved on. only afterward did we read everything… we havent the taliban but we have big pharma.

  2. I am so upset after reading this article because my mother has been having noticeable memory decline. My father is the one with heart disease in his family (father died at fifty from a heart attack). I truly believe he died because of not eating any omega 3’s…they lived in Montana.
    If only people would understand that diet places such an important part in their lives and what they ate in their mid life will affect their outcome later in life.
    I don’t know what to do for them…they are caught up in the one pill solves everything mode…plus keeping the drug companies in business.
    What a joke!

  3. Hmm? I do miss the old Chris Kresser, the healthy skeptic, whose articles were dense, well researched, and thoughtful.

    Chris, you’ve missed the point. Of course pharmaceutical companies spin their marketing, and sell their drugs at the expense of their integrity, but you can find the same marketing on a cereal box. It’s the sad way of the world and hardly revelatory.

    Dr. Kendrick’s real point is philosophical: How much decrease in quality of life is worth extra time on earth? Now that would make for a great blog discussion.

  4. Since I started eating whole foods and less grains, my lipid profile changed drastically for the better. Instead of throwing money at the effectiveness of statins, let’s do clinical trials on eating fresh, whole food vs. packaged, processed food… oh wait… there is no money in that!

    • I suspect they are finding these “off-label” uses for statins because the pharmaceutical companies are seeing plain as day that the gig is up on them being great for protecting heart health. In order to keep the cash cow alive and their coffers full, they *have to* find other uses for them.

  5. Check out the Newsletter from Peoples Pharmacy. They have been having feedback on the serious side effects of these almost useless drugs.
    And many physicians are not doing their own research so are still insisting patients who will probably get no benefit take these drugs.
    The pathway in the body that statins block is one of the most important. Who knows what else beside CoQ10 and cholesterol is blocked? Did they even check or did they cover that up?

    • Something else statins interfere with is production of the prenylated proteins required for proper functioning of some of the glucose transporters (GLUT) that are translocated to cell membranes in order to remove glucose from the bloodstream and bring it into cells. This is probably the main reason statins are associated with an increased risk for diabetes. :-/ (Those specialized proteins are synthesized in a branch of the same biochemical pathway that statins block.)

  6. The press reports stuff in such a way as to promote newspaper sales/website hits. It’s all based on sensationalism–one step away from tabloid stuff.

    I just got done reading an article that says “to lose weight, just exhale”, when the truth is far more complicated than that! It just shows the media, while trying to boil down information so the crowd can understand it, THEY THEMSELVES don’t understand it either. Their job is to REPORT, not understand. It’s OUR job to investigate, digest, and understand…then apply if necessary.

    I mean really–if all we had to do to lose weight was stand around and exhale, this would be a planet of anorexic-looking people, don’t you think? Exhalation is PART of how we lose fat–not the whole story!

  7. I was misdiagnosed with Type II diabetes 10 years ago. For a decade, I was treated with several medications that I didn’t need, including a statin. My Endo told me that it was standard procedure for diabetics to take a statin and I didn’t argue. The statin drug caused terrible lower back pain, which I’m assuming was my kidneys…. I took myself off of them and never looked back. I actually have a genetic mutation, MODY 2, which is a type of “diabetes” that requires no medication at all. Just diet and exercise. I think it’s important to trust your “gut” and always ask questions. I asked for years for a genetic test for my diabetes since I wasn’t progressing and was always told that it was extremely rare and the test was too expensive. It would have been cheaper than paying for diabetes medications and 2 “high-risk” pregnancies over the past 10 years!!!

  8. Chris,
    Thank you for your ongoing interest in Cholesterol/statins
    I have bought and studied your “Cholesterole Action Plan “. I did this due to my PN of 2440.
    T-411, LDL-285, and HDL 110, try-49. After r/o all other factors you recommended , I deducted I Was either a hyperesponder or had F/H.
    I have no disease factors , am a active 60 y/o F, and eat a Paloe/WAP diet for years.
    I decided to cut out saturated fat. I stopped the abundant coconut oil, butter and raw milk , but continued avocado, meat, eggs, and light raw cream in coffee. It cut my numbers by 25-30%.
    Last PN was 1670, T-191, LDL 177, HDL 104. BUT , as I understands numbers do vary 40-50 points on a given day as I have tested higher again.
    So, I am tourtured by the nauseating thoughts of taking a Statin.
    As of the article today I will not be taking a statin.
    In limbo
    Joan

    • Soluble fiber, plant sterol supplements. Vit K-2 is probably more important for heart/vascular health anyway.

  9. Malcolm and the other Cholesterol sceptics at thincs.org have definitely changed the way I view cholesterol and heart attack risk factors. Most patients I talk to who have had the statin discussion with their GP haven’t been told abut a CIMT scan or possibly a CAC score, such a pity I think.

  10. Instead of replying to media opinion pieces with yet another opinion piece, can you please provide the actual citations for the original studies in their entirety (not just the abstracts)? I have an epidemiology background and I don’t take anyone’s word on their interpretation of the data. Both quotes on “so-called statistics” (which I think of as “spin”) are void of critical information such as whether this was based on relative or attributable risks or odds ratios – all of which have implications for interpreted the “press release” style quotes of both parties.

    • Exactly what I was thinking. I have no medical background but my first thought is “why isn’t Chris tell us how Dr. Malcolm Kendrick comes to the conclusions he does[hi success rate].

    • In my experience, it’s a waste of time trying to dissect studies to determine the ‘truth.’ You just can’t be sure you have access to all of the relevant data to determine this, and whether or not the data is valid. I appreciate that someone is trying, tho!

    • Dr Kendrick gets his statistics from critical evaluation of the manufacturer’s own studies. Exactly the same analysis you are talking about. Example, women must be excluded to reach statistical significance.

  11. Dear Chris, thank you for this article, last year my doctor told me to take statin drugs, even though I have no pre-existing heart disease whatsoever, I appreciate your information.

  12. I have been a critic of statins for some years now ..The side effects like many of todays profit motive driven drugs far outweigh the benefits, if any. I believe statins will go down in history like thalidomide. I have read that eating apples can have the claimed benefits as statins.

    • Most apples are on the list of “Dirty Dozen)” fruits because of high pesticide use.
      Please get organic apples.

      • Non-organic apples taste pretty bland… I wouldn’t waste the money on them even if they weren’t covered in chemicals. The peel is the best part and dealing with pesticides and wax is just awful.

  13. From personal experience I wouldn,take statins for a million pound. My Husband had a serious heart attack aged 50. He was for and well at theo e and his cholesterol was 4.4 so quite low. His consultant did not put him on statins saying that they would not help him as his bloods were all good and his heart attack was an hereditary problem, which we suspected was the case as most of his fathers side died of it. His surgery asked him to take part in a statin trial to see if they could bring his cholesterol down even further, he complied and has been on the trial for many years. I had begged him to pack them up, but every time the nurse talked him back round to her point of view. His memory is definitely impaired now, not seriously, but enough to cause us to argue a lot when he forgets so much and I,Ve also noticed of late that he dithers a bit and doesn,t know what he is doing. I,m seriously worried for his future to be honest with you and I blame the statins entirely.xxx

    • Carole, I don’t want to raise any alarms, but if your husband is on a statin and is showing signs of memory problems and confusion, you *should* be concerned. I encourage you to check out the article I wrote about Alzheimer’s for the Weston Price Foundation. It’s not a stretch to apply the same principles to the early stages of cognitive decline and what they call “mild cognitive impairment.” That’s like being “pre-diabetic.” Unless steps are taken to prevent the full-blown condition, it will manifest eventually.
      http://www.westonaprice.org/modern-diseases/type-3-diabetes-metabolic-causes-of-alzheimers-disease/

  14. I think it would be beneficial to explain why they don’t work.

    As far as I understood it’s because statins prevent cholesterol, but cholesterol is the body’s attempt to repair blood vessel damage.

    So the real problem is blood vessel damage and not cholesterol.

    • Well, it depends what you mean by “don’t work.” Statins are sold as a cholesterol lowering drugs, and for that, they work as advertised. But the real reason people are taking them is to prevent a heart attack, and extend life. For 98 percent of people who take them, they won’t get this benefit. And even for the <2 percent that do, they are at risk for very seriously health consequnces.

  15. This is a useful topic as Statins are most commonly prescribed drugs for high cholestrols patients. One strong reason for this is 70% cholestrol of the body is made in liver. Another drug Ezetimibe which can only control dietery cholestrol through intestine and will not be very useful if the patient is on full diet control. Is there any alternative medication or treatment available to control the production of cholestrols in the liver.

    • WHY would we want to control the production of cholesterol in the liver? It is a normal and PROTECTIVE body function. Studies have failed to show a correlation between cardiovascular disease and cholesterol–about 50% of those with their first cardiovascular event have LOW cholesterol. Eat real food, avoid high sugar, processed food and processed oils, and your body will take care of itself. If this was not true, we would never have survived as a species to be here today.

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        Gifted Holistic teacher am I. Sprout millions of organic seeds of life….culture kefir. Ferment A-Z local organically grown veggies…juice my own grown wheat grass….LOTS OF CAYENNE,GARLIC,ONIONS,GREENS,WATERCRESS,
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  16. I am 74 healthy blood pressure 125/65 cholesterol 6 my doctor wanted me take this statin to lower my chances of having a stroke from 12 to 7% I left her office I was disgusted as I had heard from you guys that it could be dangerous

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