A lot of controversy has surrounded the use of statins, a class of drugs used to reduce cholesterol and protect people against heart attacks and strokes. But a comprehensive review of the drug, looking at the benefits and potential risks of statins has concluded that the drugs prevent 80,000 heart attacks and strokes a year, a result that far outweighs the reported harm from rare side effects.
Published in The Lancet, the review analyzed the findings of randomized controlled trials of the drugs, and found that “large-scale evidence from randomized trials shows that statin therapy reduces the risk of major vascular events.” Out of 10,000 patients taking 40 milligrams of statins a day for five years, around 1,000 heart attacks and strokes would be prevented in those who had existing cardiovascular disease, and another 500 would be prevented in those who were deemed most at risk due to, for example, high blood pressure. While they acknowledge that there are some rare side effects, such as muscle pain, these were in the vast minority with only 50 to 100 people reporting such symptoms.
“This article now firmly establishes the benefit-risk profile of statins,” says Professor Alan Boyd, President of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, who was not involved with the study. “Although it has taken thirty years to arrive at this point, it has demonstrated the public health benefit of the use of this class of drugs and lays to rest the views held previously about the risks involved with them.”
There has been quite a lot of confusion surrounding the use of statins, mainly related to the fact that many people, due to the drug's very nature, are taking them without really being ill, but also due to fears over their potential side effects. Fueled by the media, it is thought that as many as 200,000 people had stopped taking the drugs despite their doctor’s recommendations. This latest review estimates that in the UK this will lead to an extra 2,000 heart attacks and strokes over the next 10 years.
In response to this, the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, has written a comment piece to accompany the new study in which he compares the scaremongering surrounding the drug to Andrew Wakefield’s condemned 1998 study, published in the same journal, linking the MMR vaccination to autism. “One lesson of MMR was that, in the face of an unjustified claim that could harm public health, the scientific community, including journals, should respond quickly and robustly to counter that claim,” Horton writes.
The researchers of this latest study hope to put to bed many of the false claims made about the drugs, which as they are used as preventative medicine, are often given to otherwise healthy individuals.