Last week, I wrote about the “cholesterol con,” the widespread belief that “bad Cholesterol” ( LDL cholesterol) is a major factor driving heart disease, and that cholesterol-lowering drugs like Lipitor and Crestor can protect us against fatal heart attacks. These drugs, which are called “statins,” are the most widely-prescribed pills in the history of human medicine. In 2007 world-wide sales totaled $33 billion. They are particularly popular in the U.S., where 18 million Americans take them.
We thought we knew how they worked. But last month, when Merck/Schering Plough finally released the dismal results of a clinical trial of Zetia, a cholesterol-lowering drug prescribed to about 1 million people, the medical world was stunned. Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic called the findings “shocking.” It turns out that while Zetia does lower cholesterol levels, the study failed to show any measurable medical benefit.
This announcement caused both doctors and the mainstream media to take a second look at the received wisdom that “bad cholesterol” plays a major role in causing cardiac disease. A Business Week cover story asked the forbidden question, “Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?"
The answer, says Dr. Jon Abramson, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and the author of Overdosed America, is that “statins show a clear benefit for one group—people under 65 who have already had a heart attack or who have diabetes. But,” says Abramson, “there are no studies to show that these drugs will protect older patients over 65—or younger patients who are not already suffering from diabetes or established heart disease –from having a fatal heart attack. Nevertheless, 8 or 9 million patients who fall into this category continue to take the drugs, which means that they are exposed to the risks that come with taking statins –which can include severe muscle pain, memory loss, and sexual dysfunction.”
Finally—and here is the stunner—it turns out we don’t have any clear evidence that statins help the first group by lowering cholesterol levels. It’s true that they do lower cholesterol, but many researchers are no longer convinced that this is what helps patients avoid a second heart attack. It now seems likely that they work by reducing inflammation. In other words, these very expensive drugs seem to do the same thing that aspirin does. (Are they more effective than the humble aspirin? We’ll need head-to-head studies to find out.)