I tell patients with a cholesterol level of between 5 and 7 they’re healthy. If it’s above 7, it’s probably due to a family history of high cholesterol and if any relatives have early heart disease then it’s worth taking a statin.
The body needs cholesterol - 25% of it is in the brain and is vital for it to function properly. For patients who have suffered heart attack or stroke or have existing cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart and blood vessels) taking a statin can benefit them. But, the real question is by how much?
Patients should ask doctors, “How much longer will I live if I take a statin?” The answer is, not very long. If you’re at high risk of heart disease or stroke and you take a statin for 30 years, you’re likely to live an extra nine months.
I believe statins have substantial side effects which can significantly affect quality of life. Some studies suggest such problems may be much more common than is recognised.
Side effects of statins
A Dutch survey of 4,738 statin users asked about side effects. Just over a quarter (27%) said they suffered from them. Around 40% of these sufferers experienced muscle pain and almost a third (31%) had joint pain. It also reported that 16% had digestion problems and 13% had memory loss.
Other research shows patients who had definite or probable side effects tended to be dismissed by their doctors who denied any specific statin-linked side effects and failed to appreciate the effect on their life.
If you have problems ask your GP if your statin could be causing them and if it’s possible to reduce the dose.
Women and statins
To date, no large trial of women statin users who already have cardiovascular disease has been shown to increase life expectancy by one day. More importantly, the use of statins in women at lower risk has not increased life expectancy nor prevented heart attacks and stroke.
It raises the question whether women should be prescribed statins at all. I believe that the answer is no. Statins fail to provide any overall health benefit in women. The more recent heart protection study was hailed as a success for men and women, but despite the hype there was no effect on mortality in women.
If you’re on a statin because you’re at high risk of cardiovascular disease and you have muscle pain, it’s worth taking the vitamin-like substance Coenzyme Q 10. Statins cause levels of this to fall in the body. I’ve seen no evidence that taking it causes harm.
The Great Cholesterol Con by Malcolm Kendrick, John Blake Publishing, £9.99.
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