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When they first came on the pharmaceutical scene in the early 2000s, cholesterol-reducing “statins” were pegged as “the wonder drug,” allowing those at with, and at risk for heart disease to keep their cholesterol at bay without giving up their favorite fatty foods. According to the Telegraph, the launch of the first statin in the US “was accompanied by a national education programme run by a panel of independent experts, which encouraged everyone to drop into their doctor to get their cholesterol checked, and to take medication if it was found to be raised.” With the help persuasive drug companies, it wasn’t long before statins were prescribed as a preventative measure even for people who didn’t show signs of heart problems.

A new study, published by the Cochrane Collaboration, though, finds significant flaws in the medical research (funded by drug companies) connecting statins to death prevention in low-risk patients. “Statins--including Pfizer's Lipitor and AstraZeneca's Crestor--help prevent new heart attacks in people who've already had one, but the effects are less certain in individuals at lower risk,” Reuters reports. In addition to raising the question of whether healthy people taking statins may be doing so unnecessarily, the Telegraph notes that “a number of studies have linked statins to liver problems, acute kidney failure and muscle damage.”

Several reports following the study offer reactions, additional risks, and recommendations for statin users now questioning their prescription.

  • Better Than the Alternative Mental health and substance abuse writer Andrew Brown read the report in his own newspaper, but isn’t ready to give up his daily statin dose. He rationalizes:
I have only been on the statins for a few months, so I’ve yet to find out what effect the little nightly tablet has had on my blood fats. But assuming they do turn out to help, it is massively more convenient for me to have this back-up that somehow mops up some of the fats in my diet, than to enforce on myself the strictures of an unpalatable low-fat diet.
  • Potential Mental Side Effects  In a report on the recent Cochrane study, Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune notes that additional “independent researchers in the US and Canada have found links between statin use and a variety of cognitive disorders ranging from depression to dementia.”
  • As Well As Physical Ones  A separate Miller-McCue report by Judith Reitman, suggests the cholesterol medicine may also contribute to certain neuromuscular diseases, such as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. One particular patient, Reitman writes, was diagnosed with ALS a couple of years after being prescribed to statins to keep his cholesterol down following a stroke. Though it hasn’t been proved, several studies have been conducted linking statin intake to the development of a rogue gene found in patients who have developed ALS. 
  • What Prevents One Problem May Cause Another  Earlier this month, Steven Reinberg at Bloomberg Business Week reports on a different study, suggesting that patients prescribed to statins following a stroke “caused by bleeding in the brain may be at an increased risk of having another such stroke.” The study differentiates between ischemic strokes “where a clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain”--known to be prevented by statins--and hemorrhagic strokes, caused by bleeding in the brain. The study’s results “indicated that patients taking statins had a 14 percent to 22 percent greater risk of having another hemorrhagic stroke, particularly patients whose stroke was a lobar intracerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in the part of the brain called the cerebrum,” Reinberg writes.
  • So Should Healthy People Avoid Statins Altogether?  In Psychology Today, doctors Julian and Betsy Seifter acknowledge that, these days, there seems to be “a cure for every ill, a pill for every occasion.” But, they warn, patients, like those recommended to take lifetime drugs such as statins, should be aware of all the potential side effects and decide how much “discomfort and uncertainty are they willing to tolerate in their daily lives” in exchange for the benefits statins may provide. “Trying a drug, weighing side effects, tweaking dose or brand, looking at non-pharmaceutical approaches-these are the things that can make the difference in successful treatment,” they recommend.

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