Statins: Magic Bullets or Magic Numbers?

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Baby boomers are the number one target market for statins; just turning 60 is enough to trigger a prescription. So, what are statins and how did this happen? We look at the science, the risks and the alternatives for boomers.

Main Points

  • Drugs in the ‘statin’ class are the most widely-prescribed drugs in history;
  • Statins are prescribed more often to boomers because of our perceived heart disease risk;
  • Drug performance can be reported as relative or absolute numbers; the difference is over 10-fold;
  • Some side effects from statins are more obvious than the benefits.

(There’s more than one way to reduce the risk of heart disease, which the Mediterraneans have known for centuries. If you’d like to know more about drug-free, effective ways to reduce heart risk without giving up scrumptious food or a glass of wine, check out the MMM! Anti-diet. MMM stands for ‘Muscles & Marbles Mediterranean’ and the ‘anti-diet’ means no diet at all. It’s the boomer way.)

The Cholesterol Drug

Would you like statins with that?

Statins (drugs in the statin class) first emerged in the 1980s.

By the 1990s, several ‘landmark trials’ showed how these drugs reduced the risk of heart attacks or the risk of a second heart attack in people with cardio-vascular disease (CVD). (I put the words in quotation marks because that’s how the trials  were described; as we’ll see, they were landmarks of another kind.)

Since the 1990s, statins have become one of the most widely-prescribed drugs in history. For the makers of statins, it’s been a dream run, with this drug class generating more revenue than any other in history.

At one stage, the euphoria reached such giddy heights that some experts suggested that statins should be added to town water supplies and dispensed at fast food outlets. Hard to believe, but that was suggested even as recently as 2010.

Boomers Number One Target

We boomers are the prime target because the risk of heart attack and stroke goes up with age.

Expert panels in the US and UK state that those of us in our sixties should take these drugs for the rest of our lives, even if we run marathons once a month and can leap tall high jumps in a single bound.

Yet, if we push through the hype, we find that statins have only shown benefits for middle-aged men with established heart disease.

And they’ve shown zero benefits for women of any age, for either primary or secondary prevention. Yet most doctors will counsel us to take these drugs.

The Wrong Kind of Doctoring

You may have read that statins reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30 – 40%, but on closer inspections, that’s what’s defined as ‘relative risk’. When you check the ‘absolute risk’, the impressive claims simply melt away.

(Get all the calculations in our post The 4 Medical Risk Numbers Boomers Must Know‘.)

In the Lipitor example, the drug trial group registered 2 heart attacks per 100 subjects, versus 3 in the placebo group. By definition, this means a relative risk reduction is 33% (rounded). Yet, the actual risk reduction is 1%. That is, 1 heart attack avoided in 100 people who took the drug for 5 years. Read more about this in our post Risky Business: The 4 Medical Risk Numbers You Must Know.

Sadly this flagrant massaging of trial results is often lost on both doctors and medical reporters.

‘These side effects promote frailty and disability in older adults, ‘and further compromise older people’s ability to function in daily life.’

Dr Gregory Curfman, Editor, Harvard Health publications.

Stairway to Heaven?

Statin ad quoting relative not absolute risk

The most frequent adverse events of statins are muscle fatigue, muscle damage and memory loss. Yes, our muscles and marbles, the very assets we boomers want to keep in good shape to live our lives to the full.

Other adverse events include musculoskeletal disorders, back conditions, injuries and inflammation in joints. ‘These side effects promote frailty and disability in older adults,’ says Gregory Curfman, editor of Harvard Health publications, ‘and further compromise older people’s ability to function in daily life.’

ALLHAT-LLT was the only major statin trial not sponsored by a drug maker, and the results gave cause for concern. as Dr Curfman states:

… these multiple risks and the data show that statin therapy in older adults may be associated with an increased mortality rate, [and] should be considered before prescribing or continuing statins for patients in this age group.’

Dr Gregory Curfman, Editor, Harvard Health publications.

Both Sides Now

Cardiologist Steven Nissen from the famous Cleveland Clinic claims that ‘there is no diet that’s been shown to reverse heart disease.’ The irony is that colleagues at the same clinic are doing precisely that: running a heart disease reversal program called the Esselstyn Heart Disease Program. It’s built around a plant-based diet, like some Medieterranean diets.

The Mediterranean diet became popular after the Lyon Diet Heart study run in the 1990s, where 600 patients who had suffered previous heart attacks were divided into two diet groups. One followed the low-fat American Heart Association (AHA) diet and the other a Mediterranean diet. The people on the AHA diet suffered three times as many heart attacks, strokes and deaths than those on the Mediterranean diet.

The takeaway point is this: there are more effective, less harmful ways to improve your heart health than taking a drug.

In fact, you could reduce your risk of heart disease by not taking some drugs, doing some mild exercise and losing some weight. Find out more about the drugs boomers should avoid in our blog post: 10 Drugs That Boomers Should Never Take’.

Overweight and obesity are major risk factors for heart disease, so losing any excess weight is just plain smart at our ages.

Find out about the scrumptious foods you can eat to lose weight and fight disease in our comprehensive eBook:  MMM! The Food Lover’s Way to Lose Weight. Click below for details.

Lose Weight


Discover The Muscles & Marbles Mediterranean Anti-diet


Statins, Women and Primary Prevention: Evidence-Based Medicine or Wishful Thinking? – Medscape
Analysis: No Statin Primary Prevention Seen for Seniors — stains show no benefit at ages 65-74
Risks of Statin Therapy in Older Adults – Curfman, JAMA Internal Medicine
Pearls From Steven Nissen, Medpage Today
Heart Disease Reversal Program, Cleveland Clinic
Mediterranean diet, traditional risk factors, the Lyon Diet Heart Study
Lyon diet: Why did one of the world’s healthiest diets not take off? – ABC News

Kim Brebach

Kim Brebach

Hi, I’m Kim Brebach, boomer, information researcher, technical writer and Joiner of Dots at M&M. In my spare time, I review wines and love to cook.

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