The Health Sciences Institute
October 31, 2002
Last week I had lunch with an old friend. She’s in her late-30’s, and thanks to an exercise program and a successful diet, she’s looks terrific – better than she did when we met 15 years ago. Nevertheless, when her doctor recently found that her cholesterol level was elevated, he actually “threatened” her with a prescription for a statin drug. He told her if she didn’t get her cholesterol down 50 points, he was putting her on Lipitor. Period.
I’m too polite a lunch companion to respond to this news with something like, “Are you out of your mind?!” Maybe if her doctor had been having lunch with us I might have asked that question of him. Because there is no reason in the world why a healthy young woman would need to resort to statins to lower her cholesterol.
Not to let him off the hook, but her doctor was simply doing what the majority of doctors now do. Statins have been pushed by the pharmaceutical companies so hard for so long that many physicians are simply on auto-pilot: if the cholesterol is elevated, write the script for the statin, and have a nice day.
Branding a mindset
What do Kirk Douglas, Peggy Fleming and Sylvester Stallone have in common? They, like my friend’s doctor, want you to know the value of statin drugs. In this case, it’s by way of endorsements, not a prescription pad. But that gives you an idea of the kind of high profile that the drug companies have aimed for while placing their product in the popular mainstream. And they’ve largely found their mark, persuading doctors, the media, and millions of consumers that the correct reaction to high cholesterol is the rubber-stamping of a statin treatment.
I recently came across three news articles that demonstrate just how pervasive this bias toward statins has become. The first article is a September report from WebMD Medical News about a study conducted at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In its lead, WebMD states that the Walter Reed research shows that high doses of statins may reverse the build up of plaque in the arteries. What this article neglects to mention is how the troubling side effects of statins might be magnified by upping the dosage. I’ll address this idea further in a moment.
The second article – from the Ivanhoe Newswire just last week – reports on research from the Boston University Medical Center that offers evidence that statin use may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers state that more studies are needed before doctors are encouraged to prescribe statins for people at risk of Alzheimer’s. But this is a good example of the kind of report that pops up on a regular basis to gently underline the message in an almost subliminal mantra: statins are good, statins are good, statins are good.
The real treat is the third news item – an out and out gushing love letter to statins.
Statins for everyone!
In an article published this past July, WebMD Medical News details a study from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in which they ask you to imagine how a “simple pill” can save hundreds of thousands of lives. I told you it was a love letter.
The BHF research is an impressively large study in which more than 20,000 subjects with coronary disease, other arterial diseases, or diabetes were examined for five years. Half of the subjects received 40 mg of Zocor (the brand name of simvastatin) daily, and half received a placebo. At the conclusion of the study, mortality due to coronary death was 18% higher in the placebo group. Mortality due to other arterial diseases was described by researchers as “marginally significant” – in other words: It would be significant if it weren’t marginal. And mortality due to non-vascular deaths (which I take to mean complications associated with diabetes) was “non-significant.”
But to hear WebMD tell it, this study presents the dawning of a new age in which that “simple pill” that will make everything better for everyone. For instance, they quote one of the authors of the study who speculates that if 10 million high-risk people were to use statins, it would save 50,000 lives a year – almost 1,000 each week. And there you have one of the most simplistic cases of jumping to a wild conclusion that you’re likely to ever hear.
Just imagine how the big wheels at Zocor reacted when they read THAT quote! 10 million new customers? Ka-CHING!
WebMD apparently got caught up in the excitement, reporting that statins can also protect people with low or normal cholesterol levels. In other words, you already have doctors far and wide prescribing Zocor, Lipitor and other statins for patients with high cholesterol levels. If you then include people with low and normal cholesterol levels, let’s see, that would be…EVERYONE!
And they aren’t kidding. The article goes on to make a strong populist pitch, stating that statins work “as well in women and the elderly as they do in men and younger people.” And then they cap it off with the most audacious and baseless claim of the article: “…and statin use was safe and effective for all.”
Time to put the brakes on this love letter.
A dose of reality
Liver damage, nerve damage, and sexual dysfunction are just three of the known side effects of statin usage. Earlier I mentioned the WebMD article that suggested how high doses of statins may reverse the buildup of plaque in the arteries (I don’t think this is proven at all). Would you be willing to increase your risk of one or more of the side effects above on the chance that you MIGHT decrease artery plaque?
Tere have been studies in Finland (also using Zocor) that showed how statin use decreased antioxidants by as much as 22%. Other studies have confirmed that statins deplete Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) – a powerful antioxidant that fuels cellular energy production and repairs free-radical damage to the heart muscle. When CoQ10 is deficient, the heart is one of the first areas to suffer.
The Finnish study also reported that Zocor increased insulin levels by 13%. This is enough of an increase to cause insulin sensitivity to drop, which can lead to insulin resistance and Type II diabetes, with associated conditions like kidney disease, heart disease and even blindness.
In short: While statin use may be effective for some, it is absolutely not “safe for all.”
The side effects of tunnel vision
Conventional medicine has focused on cholesterol as the primary indicator of heart disease, when in fact it’s well known that other indicators, particularly homocysteine levels and Lipoprotein (a) levels, give a much more accurate reading of your true heart & artery health. But unlike homocysteine & Lp(a), cholesterol can be treated with highly marketable statin medications. So with extreme tunnel vision, conventional medicine heavily promotes the idea of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) as the primary culprit that must be addressed to the exclusion of all others. As a result, you get a steady stream of studies reported by the mainstream media with a very strong pro-statin bias.
Saying cholesterol is the cause of heart disease is like saying a fever is the cause of an infection. The way to deal with a fever is to address the infection. Likewise, the best way to deal with high LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) is to address the variety of factors that contribute to heart disease. Exercising regularly, keeping the body weight at a proper level, not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and taking antioxidants and other heart-healthy vitamins are all excellent ways to regulate cholesterol, as well as homocysteine and Lp(a) levels.
So if your doctor looks at just your cholesterol level and tells you that he’s putting you on a statin. Period. Tell him you’re looking for another doctor. Exclamation point.
DR. GREENE?S COMMENT: There you go folks? as a former pharmacist I can say without reservation that all of the ?cholesterol-lowering medications?, past & present, are dangerous and should not be on the market. If my cholesterol level was 1000 I still would not take this unscientific crap.