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Bad press about statins could cost lives, say researchers

Lesley Dobson / 03 December 2015 ( 29 June 2016 )

Just hearing or reading bad news about statins may be enough to put us off taking them, and risking our health, say researchers.

Statins are cholesterol-lowering drugs that help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Image: iStock

Statins are cholesterol-lowering drugs that help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), and the strokes and heart attacks that can come with it. They also reduce the risk of having another heart attack or stroke if you’ve already had one.

So taking statins would appear to be a good move, especially as medical experts regard them as safe and effective.

Related: Find out more about statins and what they do

However, research has shown that it can only take negative news stories appearing in the press to stop us taking statins, despite their good record.

A study on almost 7,000 people, carried out in Denmark, found a link between negative news stories on statins and some people giving them up within the first six months of starting them.

Unfortunately, giving up statins had some negative results, and was linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, and deaths.

The results of the study showed that for every national negative news story about statins, in Denmark, there was a nine percent higher risk of people coming off the drugs within six months of starting on it.

“We found that exposure to negative news stories about statins was linked to stopping statins early, and explained two percent of all heart attacks and one percent of all deaths from cardiovascular disease associated with early discontinuation of statins,” explained Professor Børge Nordestgaard, Chief Physician at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark.

“People who stop statins early have a 26% increased risk of heart attack and an 18% increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease when compared to people who continue to use them,” said Professor Børge Nordestgaard.

“Although we cannot say for sure that statin-related negative news stories cause the early discontinuation of statins, our findings suggest that this is likely.”

Another study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, published in June 2016, concluded that scare stories about the side-effects of statins could have stopped almost quarter of a million people from taking the cholesterol-lowering medication, which could lead to more than 2,000 extra heart attacks and strokes. 

Dr Handrean Soran, Consultant Physician and Endocrinologist at Central Manchester University Hospitals and Chair of HEART UK’s Medical, Scientific and Research Committee, said: “This report may be only the tip of the iceberg. Not only do patients stop taking life-saving medicines because of misleading reports about statins, but they are also often reluctant to take any in the first place which puts them at very high risk of a heart attack or stroke.”

Related: Find out more about cardiovascular disease

This type of research can’t prove that giving up statins caused these problems, however the information from the study suggests that stopping the statins early leads to unnecessary heart attacks and deaths from cardiovascular disease,” explained Professor Børge Nordestgaard.

Other findings from the Danish study showed that the risk of stopping taking statins early increased:

  • with each calendar year
  • with increased daily doses
  • being a man
  • living in cities
  • not being Danish (but living in Denmark)

Seeing or hearing positive news stories about statins reduced the risk of stopping them by 8%.

Related: Find out more about the benefits of statins

Having cardiovascular disease (CVD) or diabetes when the statins were first prescribed reduced the risk of stopping them by 27 percent (in people with CVD) and 9 percent (in people with diabetes).

“This interesting study raises important questions about how people make decisions that affect their health and the consequences of those decisions,” says Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation.

“It is important for patients that their doctors base their advice on objective interpretation of the best evidence available rather than biased reports in the lay and medical press.

“Everyone is influenced to a certain degree by the media and this study emphasises why it is important that medical professionals, in particular, should be guided by the scientific evidence rather than opinion.

“Thanks to donations from the UK public, BHF-funded research has provided very strong and clear evidence that statins reduce the risk of someone dying from or being disabled by a heart attack or stroke.”

Statins aren’t popular with everyone, largely because of the unpleasant side effects they can cause in up to one in 10 people.

Common side effects include nosebleeds, a runny or blocked nose, headache, constipation, diarrhoea, feeling sick, muscle and joint pain and an increased risk of diabetes.

Related: Find out more about the side effects of statins

If you are concerned about any side effects you’re having, or find them too uncomfortable to cope with, talk to your GP. They may be able to suggest a different type of statin, or other ways to reduce your symptoms.

Read our feature ‘Natural alternatives to statins’, to find out more about statins, and other ways to reduce your cholesterol level.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.