Why I’m thrilled about the new, expanded statin drug guidelines

You’ve never seen me write anything positive about cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. They don’t improve your heart disease risks. Or your longevity. However, they do raise your Type II diabetes risk. And they cause muscle damage, pancreatitis, hepatitis, swelling of the blood vessels, hives, shortness of breath, edema, severe skin itching, and blood in the urine.

But, just for the moment, never mind all that…

I’m actually thrilled to hear about the new guidelines for expanded statin drug use. I know that sounds crazy. So, I’ll explain my reasoning in a moment. But first, let’s back up and figure out what the new guidelines mean for you…

Today, roughly a quarter of Americans age 45 and older already take statins to treat high cholesterol. But an expert panel from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Cardiology (ACA) said that number just isn’t high enough. They want to increase our drug “dependence.”

They say when determining who should take a statin, we need to look beyond total cholesterol levels. We need to consider a patient’s age, weight, and blood pressure. We also need to look at whether a patient smokes or has diabetes. They even designed a nifty mathematical formula to help doctors determine their patients’ cardiovascular disease risk. And if, after plugging in the numbers, a patient has more than a 7.5 percent risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke in the next decade, he or she should start taking a statin drug. Regardless of their LDL cholesterol score.

If we apply these new guidelines, it means millions more American men and women and up to a billion worldwide will “qualify” to start taking the drugs.

So, why does this new development make me “giddy as a school boy”?

Well, these new guidelines are so preposterous, so outlandish, so asinine, they’ve made just about everyone–even mainstream experts and mainstream media–raise their eyebrows and think, well now they have finally gone too far. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally have a real discussion about the dangers of statin drugs.

I often warn you, dear reader, about these dangers. But most Americans still seem to have no idea about the harm statins can cause. So now, thanks to the AHA’s foolishness, many experts are now taking a closer look at the problem. And these are just a few of the facts they should find, if they finally look hard enough…

In prior generations, cardiovascular disease existed as an isolated medical condition. Some people just had faulty tickers. And that was that.

But today, two-thirds of patients hospitalized for acute heart attack actually suffer from metabolic syndrome. And the heart attack is just a symptom of the problem.

Plus, 75 percent of these heart attack patients have completely normal total cholesterol levels. In fact, despite the conventional wisdom that high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, several recent independent studies found that low total cholesterol is actually associated with higher death rates. Both from cardiovascular disease and other diseases, such as cancer.

You could conclude that the AHA and the ACA are being savvy. They saw the writing on the wall. They saw that high cholesterol just isn’t the problem it’s been made out to be. So, they changed their criteria for statin drug use.

I can hear the backroom meeting now…

“Oh, so it is turning out that high cholesterol doesn’t equal more heart attacks and strokes?” “Well, no. You need to measure weight. And look at family history. And see whether they smoke. Or have Type II diabetes.”   

In other words, they expanded their original criterion to include a whole slew of people who don’t even have high cholesterol. And told them to take a cholesterol-lowering drug! In fact, using these new criteria, they doubled the number of people eligible for statin drug prescriptions…in one fell swoop.

But let’s get to a larger issue…

Will these new, expanded guidelines reduce cardiovascular disease events in this country? Will this help reduce heart attack and stroke rates in this country? Will people live longer?

Don’t count on it.

In fact, we already have a great study out of Sweden that shows us what happens when an entire national population undergoes a massive spike in statin drug use.

This study analyzed data for nearly the entire adult population of Sweden. It included data on nearly 4 million men and women, between the ages of 40 and 79. And they found that between 1998 and 2000, the number of people taking statins nearly tripled. (Yes, it nearly tripled. In just two years!)

Then, the researchers analyzed morbidity and mortality rates from 289 municipalities. They wanted to see if death rates from cardiovascular disease improved after statin drug use tripled.

Any guesses what they found? Did everyone miraculously stop having heart attacks and strokes? Did they all start living longer?

Of course not.

In fact, the results showed no benefit whatsoever from tripling the use of statins in the entire population. The number of people suffering or dying from heart attacks remained unchanged. And they certainly didn’t live longer.

So, if these drugs don’t prevent heart attacks…don’t prevent strokes…don’t help us live longer…and do cause major, harmful side effects along the way…remind me again, why are we expanding their use?

Last month, two Harvard Medical School professors asked the very same question. They said the new risk calculator is deeply flawed. And that it overestimates a patient’s risk.

So yes, I’m thankful for the new guidelines. It seems like a lot of folks in the medical world have finally seen enough. Perhaps we can now all focus on taking some real steps to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Like lowering blood pressure. Lowering stress. Improving diet. Engaging in sensible, healthy physical activity. And even enjoying wine in moderation.

Sounds like an excellent way to start to the New Year.


1. “No connection between the level of exposition to statins in the population and the incidence/mortality of acute myocardial infarction: An ecological study based on Sweden’s municipalities,” Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine 2011; 10(6)