Statins save thousands of lives every year, but like all medicines, they can have side effects and these have come under scrutiny recently.
What are the benefits of statins?
Statins are a class of medicines used to affect how cholesterol is processed by your liver, and circulates into your blood. Although cholesterol is vital to our health, having a high level of low-density cholesterol (the fatty deposits often referred to as “bad cholesterol”) can be a primary cause of narrowing arteries, cardiovascular disease, angina, strokes and heart attacks.
Stains in the press
Heart diseases are the most common cause of death in the UK, and around 7 million people are thought to be at risk and have been prescribed statins.
The medicines hit the headlines earlier this year following two papers published by the British Medical Journal that were critical of the widespread use of statins. The articles claimed that the medicines could be responsible for harmful side effects without cutting the rates of death.
Although the papers have been criticised by medical experts and the authors of the papers have since withdrawn statements within them that cited facts found to be incorrect, there has been a growing debate about the merits of statins and fears that the British Medical Journal articles may have discouraged those who need them from taking them.
Should statins be prescribed to patients with a low risk of heart disease?
The controversy has also raised issues about whether statins should be prescribed to patients who are otherwise at low risk of cardiovascular disease.
Currently, statins are offered to patients with a 20% or more chance of developing heart disease (reduced from 30% in 2005), but a study by the University of Oxford in 2012 concluded that this threshold should be reduced to help save more lives.
Professor Colin Baigent, who led the study, noted that those who smoked or were overweight were also at risk of cardiovascular problems despite a ‘normal’ cholesterol level:
We have been encouraged to know our ‘cholesterol level’, whereas what we really need to know is our ‘risk level’, and we should base our decisions about whether to commence statin treatment on that information and not solely on cholesterol levels.
These feelings have been echoed by the National Institute for Care Excellence, which has suggested that the NHS offer satins to people with just a 10% risk of cardiovascular disease. However, many others remain undecided about using statins as a preventative measure rather than as a treatment.
What are the side effects of statins?
By taking any medicine you are exposing yourself to potential side effects. Reported side effects from taking statins include:
- Muscle pain
- Liver inflammation
- Kidney problems
- Blurred vision
- Nerve damage
- Type 2 diabetes
The study also revealed that some patients may have believed they were experiencing side effects after learning which ones the medicines could induce (called a “nocebo” effect).
The British Heart Foundation states that just 1 in every 10,000 people will experience a potentially dangerous side effect and medical researcher Professor Sir Rory Collins, when speaking with the BBC Today programme, said trials of more than 100,000 patients showed that there was
“a very low risk of muscle problems” and a “small increase in diabetes”.
Are statins safe for me to take?
The NHS estimates that statins save around 7,000 lives a year in the UK alone by cutting the risks of heart attacks and strokes, so patients need to weigh up the benefits against the potential side effects before considering a lifetime of taking statins.
However, it is prevailing medical opinion that if you are at a high risk of heart problems in the next decade, the advantages will outweigh the risks.
Any decisions about taking statins should be discussed with your GP or our online doctors via your Patient Record.