Lowering High Cholesterol

  • 7 Jun 2011
  • Reading time 17 mins
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What you need to know about cholesterol, what is normal, and how to lower it - and the downsides and alternatives to statins.

Promise of longer life a myth

A study in the Lancet found that in these cases, even though the drugs prevented a few heart attacks, none of the patients lived any longer as a result. That's bad enough – if you are told this pill will cut your risk of a heart attack, you assume that it will also make you live longer. But it gets worse. Men over 69 didn't benefit from taking statins at all, they didn't live longer and didn't have fewer heart attacks, and women of any age didn't benefit either. That's right, not at all.

According to the study’s author, Harvard professor John Abramson, you do benefit a bit if you have a high risk (eg high cholesterol or are overweight) and you’re aged between 30–69 years. But the amount is hardly impressive. Fifty of you have to be treated for five years to prevent just one event involving the heart. To put that another way – out of 100 people who have been told by their doctors that they have a high risk of getting heart disease, 98 of them won't get any benefit from a statin prescription at all.1

Suppose you were a woman with a very high risk of heart disease – how much benefit could you expect from taking statins? To answer this question for the GP magazine Pulse, Dr Malcolm Kendrick (author of The Great Cholesterol Con) analysed a major statin trial called HPS – which is frequently quoted as showing statins benefit women – and concluded that if you took statins for 30 years, you would gain, on average, just one extra month of life.

The downside of statins

All this might not matter too much if there was no downside to being prescribed statins for years. But since they can cause a variety of side effects, you might actually be at more risk from them than from a possible heart attack. Your doctor will very likely tell you about the risks of muscle pain and weakness (myopathy) and a harmful change in liver function, although he/she will say they are very rare. But again that may not be the whole story. One study in the British Medical Journal found that when 22 professional athletes with very high cholesterol levels were put on statins, 16 of them stopped the ......

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