Interview with Barbara H. Roberts, M.D., author of The Truth About Statins: Risks and Alternatives to Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs
Statins are medications which lower cholesterol by inhibiting an enzyme involved in its production by the liver and other organs. First approved by the FDA in 1987, statins are arguably the most widely prescribed medicine in the industrialized world today--and the most profitable, representing $26 billion a year in profits to the drug industry. In fact, Lipitor was the world's best selling drug until its patent expired recently. Yet, most trials that prove statins' effectiveness in preventing cardiac events and death have been funded by companies and principle investigators who stand to benefit from their wide use. In February, the FDA warned that statins can increase users' risk of type 2 diabetes and memory loss, confusion and other cognition problems.
Barbara H. Roberts, M.D., is Director of the Women's Cardiac Center at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island and Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She spent two years at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where she was involved in the first clinical trial that demonstrated a beneficial effect of lowering cholesterol on the incidence of heart disease. In addition to The Truth About Statins: Risks and Alternatives to Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs, she is also author of How to Keep from Breaking Your Heart: What Every Woman Needs to Know about Cardiovascular Disease.
Barbara Roberts, MD by author photo
Martha Rosenberg: Statins have become so popular with adults middle-aged and older in industrialized countries, they are almost a pharmaceutical rite of passage. Yet you write in your new book there is little evidence they are effective in many groups and no evidence they are effective in one group, women without heart disease.. Worse, you provide evidence, including stories from your own patients, that they are doing serious harm.
Barbara Roberts: Yes. Every week in my practice I see patients with serious side effects to statins and many did not need to be treated with statins in the first place. These side effects range from debilitating muscle and joint pain to transient global amnesia, neuropathy, cognitive dysfunction, fatigue and muscle weakness. Most of these symptoms subside or improve when they are taken off statins. There is even growing evidence of a statin link to Lou Gehrig's disease.
Martha Rosenberg: One patient you write about caused a fire in her home by forgetting that the stove was on. Another was a professor who experienced such memory loss on a statin he could no longer teach; others ended up in wheelchairs. The only thing more shocking than the side effects you write about is the apparent blindness of the medical establishment to them. Until half a year ago, there were practically no warnings at all.
Barbara Roberts: There is no question that many doctors have swallowed the Kool-Aid. Big Pharma has consistently exaggerated the benefits of statins and some physicians used scare tactics so that patients are afraid that if they go off the statins, they will have a heart attack immediately. Yet high cholesterol, which the statins address, is a relatively weak risk factor for developing atherosclerosis. For example, diabetes and smoking are far more potent when it comes to increasing risk.
Martha Rosenberg: One group you say should not be given statins at all because there is no benefit and significant risk is women who have no heart disease.