Cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins have gotten a bad rap, say the authors of a comprehensive new review of 30 years' worth of studies on the medications. Statins – including such popular brand names as Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor and Pravachol – are taken by millions of people.
The research, published today in The Lancet, will help doctors and patients make more informed decisions when it comes to using statins, the scientists said in a media briefing.
The review focused on the results of randomized clinical trials and other evidence on the effectiveness and safety of statin therapy.
"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," review author Dr. Rory Collins, of the University of Oxford, in England, said in a press statement. "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."
In their paper, the authors said lowering cholesterol by prescribing a standard 40-milligram daily dose of atorvastatin (generic for Lipitor) would, over the course of five years in 10,000 patients, prevent heart attacks, ischemic strokes and coronary artery bypasses in 1,000 people with pre-existing vascular disease. The drug would prevent those conditions in 500 additional people who are at an increased risk – due to age, hypertension or diabetes – but who haven't yet had a vascular event.
On the other hand, while statins can have some serious side effects, the researchers found the numbers are tiny in comparison. The same dose over the same period of time in the same number of patients would lead to five cases of patients developing muscle pain and weakness (myopathy). And only about one of those cases would result in full-blown muscle breakdown, called rhabdomyolysis, if the drug treatment continued.