A recent study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal determined just how long cholesterol-lowering statin drugs extend life. (Hint: It’s not by much.) The actual results will shock you, given how heavily the industry promotes these blockbuster drugs — and how many people take them. I’ll give you all the details from that revealing study in a moment. But first, let’s back up…
Statin proponents love to talk about the drugs’ ability to lower heart attack and stroke risk. In fact, when I ask people why they are still taking statins, they usually say, “…because my doctor said I’ll have a heart attack or stroke if I don’t.”
But do the drugs really lower these risks?
In fact, over the past several years, I’ve showed you exactly how statisticians cook those numbers to their heart’s delight (but not to your heart’s delight) to make the drugs appear more effective than they really are.
On the other hand, the ONE outcome statisticians can’t manipulate is death rate. This is true whether we’re evaluating the effectiveness of statin drugs, cancer screenings, or any treatment.
So the ultimate question to ask when evaluating statin drugs is…
Do the drugs extend life?
We must hold drugs to higher standards
Way back in 1765, the two original goals of “rational medicine” in America were to alleviate suffering and to prolong life. Two University of Edinburgh physicians of the “Scottish Enlightenment” founded the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (my alma mater) based on these two principles. Suffering can be subjective. But death is definite.
So, with all the technological progress since 1765, let’s use this “rational” approach to evaluate the effectiveness of statin drugs.
First, let’s ask — do the drugs alleviate suffering?
No — they don’t alleviate suffering because having cholesterol in the blood is not painful. In fact, cholesterol is a building block of brain and other tissues, as well as hormones.
Okay. So let’s ask the second question — do statins prolong life?
The answer is yes (probably, maybe). But you’ll be shocked by how little they extend life.
We actually didn’t even have the data on how long statins extend life until earlier this year. (Can you believe it? I can. Big pharma didn’t want to know. Or — more likely — they didn’t want YOU to know.)
Researchers finally performed an analysis to determine the effect of statins on average survival times among patients in clinical trials. They published their results in the British Medical Journal.
They looked at hundreds of trials on statin drugs, totaling billions of dollars. It turns out only six primary prevention studies and five secondary prevention studies actually bothered to look at survival rates. (Primary prevention means having a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, in the first place. Secondary prevention means having a second event after you have had a cardiovascular disease event. For example, having a “second heart attack.”) These original studies/trials followed patients for two to six years.
Specifically, the statisticians looked at how long statin drugs extended life. (Actually they euphemistically called it “end point postponement.”)
Here’s what they found…
A lifetime of drugs for a few extra days (maybe)
Statins postponed death (wait for it…but not for long) an average of 3.2 days among people who had never had a heart attack or stroke, and 4.1 days for those who had.
Even the researchers called it a “surprisingly small” benefit. It’s an especially small benefit when you consider the conventional, politically correct crowd tries to claim you lose three to four days of life for every puff of smoke from tobacco. (But not, of course, from marijuana smoke.)
But statistics, as you know, are tricky. There is always a margin of error.
So given the probability ratios and confidence intervals of the data, the drugs might prolong life up to 19 days in primary prevention, and up to 27 days in secondary prevention. On the other hand, the drugs might also SHORTEN life by up to five days in primary prevention, and up to 10 days in secondary prevention.
That’s just the nature of statistics. It’s not an exact science. And you’re just playing the odds, as doctors must do.
The odds aren’t in your favor when it comes to statins
Many studies show statins definitely increase your risk of developing Type II diabetes, the major cause of cardio-metabolic heart disease today. They even have a new name for it: “statin-associated diabetes mellitus.” Of course, statins also definitely increase the risk of cataracts, dementia, muscle deterioration and other problems adults really SHOULD worry about, especially as they get older.
As I reported two years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published studies on the evidence that there is absence of benefit and statins do more harm than good in people over 70 years. Gerontologists concluded they could see no reason to continue giving statins to their patients. They said they assumed there must be some benefits in younger adults, but as for them, they were finished with this disaster in a pill for older adults.
This latest analysis shows men and women who take statin drugs live longer by three to four days (maybe). Amazingly, many doctors still have the nerve to claim statins’ benefits “far outweigh” their risks.
Maybe your doctor still thinks you will defy the odds and be one of the lucky ones.
You can play the odds like being at a casino. But in the meantime, the house of big pharma always wins.
“Statin-associated Diabetes Mellitus: Review and Clinical Guide,” South Med J. 2016;109(3):167-173
“The effect of statins on average survival in randomised trials, an analysis of end point postponement,” BMJ (www.bmjopen.bmj.com) 9/25/2015