Statins are important because they lower cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of developing serious health problems, such as heart attacks, strokes and angina.
However, while protecting us from serious cardiovascular health problems, statins may also cause painful side effects in some people.
The arguments over whether we should take statins for the sake of our health, and whether they are really effective, has been carrying on for years, among the medical profession and in the media.
The statins debate
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Statins and reducing deaths from heart disease
Now statins are in the news again. A recent study – the longest ever into statins - carried out by scientists at Imperial College, London, and the University of Glasgow, (published in September 2017), produced interesting results.
This study into statins and death from heart disease, found that taking 40mg a day of pravastatin (a fairly weak statin), reduced the number of deaths from heart disease in those taking part, by over 25%.
Those taking part were all men, who were for the most part, healthy, but had very high LDL cholesterol levels (above 190mg/dl).
“For the first time, we show that statins reduce the risk of death in this specific group of people who appear largely healthy except for very high LDL levels. This legitimises current guidelines which recommend treating this population with statins,” explained the senior author, Professor Kausik Ray, from Imperial’s School of Public Health.
This research doesn’t just apply to men with very high LDL cholesterol levels. The scientists behind this study say that doctors should consider prescribing statins for people who appear generally healthy, but have cholesterol levels above 155mg/dl.
About eight million British people are currently taking statins – the pills that reduce our cholesterol levels, and so reduce our risk of dying from strokes, heart attacks, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease brought on by kidney disease.
Kidney disease and statins
Now the results of some recent studies have brought reactions suggesting that even more of us should start taking statins to improve our health, and reduce the risk of dying from heart and other problems. NICE, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recently stated that the estimated 2.6 million people in England who have chronic kidney disease should be offered statins by their doctors.
Professor Gillian Leng, the deputy chief executive at NICE commented: “We know that a high number of people with long-term kidney problems will develop cardiovascular disease. This means that they have an increased risk of suffering a fatal heart attack or stroke.
“It is important for healthcare professionals to speak to patients about their treatment options. The effectiveness of statins is now well proven, as is their long term safety. They may appeal to a lot of people who are at risk.”
High blood pressure and kidney disease
Aches and pains may not be caused by statins alone
Two of the well-known symptoms linked to taking statins, are muscle aches and pain. They can have such a strong effect on daily life that people stop taking statins, potentially increasing their risk of developing serious health problems in their heart and blood vessels.
New research has been carried out by an international team headed by researchers at the University of Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital and Medical School. This work has produced a possible explanation for why this problem affects some people but not others.
The research found that it’s possible to have variations in the genes that make us more likely to develop aching muscles. And because this is caused by those variations in our genes, those affected will feel aches and pains in their muscles whether they are taking statins or not.
A genetic link to aches and pains
Alongside this finding, the researchers discovered that there is also a genetic sub-group. The people in this group do have a greater risk of developing aching in their muscles due to taking statins. This means that in the future we could potentially be screened to see if we belong to either of these groups, or to other possible groups with genetic variations. Doctors could then know which people are likely to have an adverse reaction to statins, and could prescribe different drugs for those patients.
Professor Colin Palmer from the University of Dundee, and leader of the research team, said: “We found that there are people in the general population who carry a genetic factor that predisposes them to muscle aches. If these people are put on statins, they might discontinue their medication in the erroneous belief that it is the statin that is making their muscles ache. At the same time we observed that there is a genetic sub-group of patients who are susceptible to statin-specific muscle ache, although at this stage we don’t understand the mechanism responsible for this effect.”
“Adverse reactions are the driving reason for therapy cessation, which puts the patient at an increased risk of a cardiovascular event. This is the first time a genetic variant thought to be involved in the repair and regeneration of muscles has been found to be associated with this event.”
If you are unhappy with the effect statins are having on you, and find yourself in pain and discomfort often, don’t just stop taking your statins, talk to your GP. They may be able to suggest an alternative statin that might suit you better.
Why bad news about statins can cost lives
How to help yourself to a healthier heart
We can all take steps to take better care of our heart health
How to lower your cholesterol levels naturally
A few tweaks to your everyday diet can help to reduce your cholesterol levels.
Foods packed with unsaturated fats
Changing your diet isn’t always easy, but eating a healthy diet is good for your health in all sorts of ways, as well as bringing down your cholesterol levels. Start slowly by swapping some foods with high levels of saturated fats for healthier foods. These include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive and sunflower oil and spreads.
Soluble fibre can also help to lower your cholesterol levels. You’ll find this in oats, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
Nuts are packed with plant nutrients that help to bring down cholesterol levels. These include unsaturated fats, vegetable protein, unsaturated fats, vitamin E and potassium. A handful of nuts every day could lower your cholesterol level by around 5 percent a day.
10 healthy reasons to eat more nuts
Oats and barley help to prevent cholesterol being absorbed in your intestines. The secret is in a soluble fibre called oats and barley contain, called beta glucan, which stops cholesterol being absorbed in your intestines.
The facts about fibre
Foods fortified with plant sterols/stanols help to reduce cholesterol levels. These fortified foods – milk, yogurts, yogurt drinks and spreads - are a good way to increase your sterols/stanols levels if you don’t eat food naturally high in these cholesterol busters, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and vegetable oils.
Physical activity is good for your health in many ways, and this includes helping to increase your good cholesterol (HDL), while prompting your body to get rid of the bad cholesterol.
The type and amount of exercise that you can do depends on your health. If you are well and strong enough, the British Heart Foundation recommends aiming for a minimum of two and a half hours of moderate exercise a week. That’s half an hour a day, for five days a week.
Depending on your level of fitness this could involve walking, swimming, cycling, etc. You don’t have to do the whole 30 minutes in one go – you could do 10 minutes at a time, and take a rest in between.
The British Heart Foundation has a booklet called ‘How I’ve reduced my Blood Cholesterol’, which you can download to your computer from their website.
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