Skeptical About Statins? Here Are 4 Pieces of Fact-Based Advice

The internet's cult of statin denial is truly fake news

Life-saving statins have been on the market for 30 years. These drugs have a proven track record of lowering cholesterol and preventing heart attacks and coronary disease.

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But statins have gotten a bad reputation with the public in recent years. Groundless claims found on the internet and elsewhere are steering some people away from these life-saving medicines. I’m frustrated, because people are dying as a result.

Statins, such as atorvastatin and rosuvastatin, are the first-line treatment of choice for people with high cholesterol and heart disease. The drugs reduce your risk for heart disease by lowering your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol.

Multiple studies have found that statins significantly reduce heart attack, stroke and deaths. And they help people avoid a second heart attack. But despite these overwhelming successes, about half of the 56 million Americans who could benefit from statins do not take them.

Are you having trouble determining the facts about statins? Here are four pieces of advice.

1. Don’t believe dietary supplement claims

Whether you’re shopping over the internet or in a store, you’ll find many supplements that claim to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease.

The federal government tests and regulates statins and other prescription drugs. But that’s not the case for supplements.

Supplement manufacturers don’t have to back up their claims. They don’t even have to list all of the ingredients in a supplement or verify its strength.

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I did my own internet search and came up with 889,000 search engine results for “dietary supplements to lower cholesterol.” But no dietary supplement will lower cholesterol to any significant extent.

2. Know the real side effects of statins

For a small number of people, statins can cause mild muscle aches. Sometimes that goes away when your doctor tweaks the dosage or switches you to another statin. In rare cases, statins cause severe muscle pain and your doctor will stop the drug immediately.

Statins might cause a slight uptick in blood sugar, but that does not cancel out the benefits for people with diabetes.

Despite what you may have heard or read, there is no evidence that statins cause cognitive decline or dementia, heart damage or cataracts.

3. Don’t believe everything on the internet

Bizarre and unscientific articles on the internet cause much confusion about statins.

I appealed to fellow physicians in a recent editorial in the Annals of Internet Medicine about the “cult of statin denial.

As I said in that editorial, we are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our patients to websites developed by people with little or no scientific expertise, who often peddle “natural” or “drug-free” remedies for elevated cholesterol levels.

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I understand the public’s confusion because many of the internet sites may appear credible. But beware of sites that sell products — including fad diet plans — that claim to offer the same benefits as statins. There’s no magic remedy out there.

4. Rely on your doctor’s training and experience

Patients come in for a doctor’s appointment and announce that they lowered their dose or stopped taking statins after reading an article on the internet or talking to a clerk at a nutrition store. We hear this all the time.

Sometimes we find out about it when they have a heart attack and we are reviewing their medications.

Even those who have had a heart attack may stop taking the medicine because of false information.

A recent study of nearly 60,000 people age 66 and older found that within two years of having a heart attack, nearly one in five people had stopped taking statins. And nearly two in five were taking a lower dose or taking it less frequently than their doctor prescribed.

One of the reasons they cited was concern about side effects. Those concerns are unfounded. This is fake news in the true sense of the word, and the problem isn’t going to go away.

If you’re at risk for heart disease, talk to your doctor and rely on reliable news sources when it comes to statins. It can save your life.

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Steven Nissen, MD

Steven Nissen, MD, is Chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. In 2007, TIME Magazine named him “one of the 100 most influential people in the world.”
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