A new review confirms the benefits of cholesterol-lowering drugs in lowering heart disease risk, and finds that side effects and risks of the medications are exaggerated, discouraging many who might need the drugs from taking them.
Statins have a complicated relationship with diabetes: studies have shown the drug can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, but they are often used in diabetes care to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
In this new study, published in The Lancet, scientists at the University of Oxford said that while side effects of statins do occur, such as muscle pain, these are very rare and the benefits of treatment are more significant.
They examined the outcomes of 10,000 patients who took an average 40mg daily dose of statins over five years.
In patients with vascular disease, the evidence suggested that statins reduced cholesterol levels sufficiently to prevent 1,000 major cardiovascular events such as strokes, heart attacks and coronary artery bypasses. Furthermore, statins prevented 500 of these events in patients at risk of vascular disease due to diabetes or hypertension.
The average dose led to a relatively low level of side effects, with adverse effects such as muscle pain occurring in 50-100 cases.
The authors said that of the six million people in the UK currently taking statins, two million have already had a major cardiovascular event, and four million take them due to being at risk of such events. They recommend that up to two million people should possibly take statins.
Lead author Professor Rory Collins said: “Our review shows that the numbers of people who avoid heart attacks and strokes by taking statin therapy are very much larger than the numbers who have side effects with it.
“In addition, whereas most of the side effects can be reversed with no residual effects by stopping the statin, the effects of a heart attack or stroke not being prevented are irreversible and can be devastating.
“Consequently, there is a serious cost to public health from making misleading claims about high side effect rates that inappropriately dissuade people from taking statin therapy despite the proven benefits.”
However, critics have argued that these findings do not provide a thorough, independent review on statins.
London cardiologist Dr Assem Malhotra said: “There are serious question marks about the reliability of industry-sponsored studies on the side effects of statins, and essentially that’s what this review is.
“And a lot of the scientists involved in the original studies were involved in this review. It is not an independent review.”