The dangers of statins

12 March 2012

Written by: Alyce Hogg

Recently The Age reported that cholesterol – lowering drugs increase the risk of diabetes and memory impairment. This is really bad news for around two million Australians who take these medications believing they’ll lower their heart attack risk. While the report is concerning, it is also comforting to know that there is now too much evidence for health authorities to ignore the side effects of statins.

Statins are drugs that block the enzyme in the liver responsible for making cholesterol. But the reality is that every cell membrane contains cholesterol, vital for the production of hormones, cellular repair and overall good health including that of the brain. It is not surprising that health authorities are concerned there might be a connection between statins and memory impairment for cholesterol is vital for the formation of neuronal functioning, without which memory and learning suffer. The increase in the risk of diabetes among statin users has been known for over a decade now, with a new study finding a moderate risk among post-menopausal women, most likely because of the way the drugs affect the body’s ability to manage insulin and glucose.

But there is much more to the cholesterol story. Author of The Cholesterol Myths, Dr. Uffe Ravnskov explains that it all began with the landmark Framingham Heart Study, which followed healthy people in the early 1950s to see who had a heart attack and what distinguished them from the people who did not. High cholesterol was one risk factor–but it was only one of more than 240 others. Ravnskov said that the public health officials and cardiologists, confused a statistical association with causation, resulting in a new disease called hypercholesterolemia, the health issue of the 21st century.

According to researchers Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, many people who feel perfectly healthy suffer from high cholesterol– in fact feeling good is actually a symptom of high cholesterol. Living longer is an effect of high cholesterol with Dr. Harlan Krumholz of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Yale University, reporting in 1994 that twice as many elderly people with low cholesterol died from a heart attack than did elderly people with high cholesterol.

It is pleasing to hear that a recent study has found that clinical and public health recommendations regarding the ‘dangers’ of cholesterol should be revised. This is especially true for women, for whom moderately elevated cholesterol may prove to be not only harmless but even beneficial. ‘High Cholesterol is not a risk factor for women’, says Dr Uffe Ravnskov, but in spite of this many women are being treated for high cholesterol.

The Cholesterol Myths begins with a story about Karla. She was a fit and healthy 62 year old cleaner when she learned she had an elevated cholesterol reading. She was instructed to change her diet and lose weight. ‘I was as fit as a fiddle’, Karla told Ravnskov. Even so she followed her doctor’s orders changing her diet to one of high fibre and using vegetable oils instead of butter and cream. Failing to lose the prescribed weight and unable to lower her cholesterol she was put on medication.  In no time her ravenous appetite had disappeared and her positive demeanour was gone, but her cholesterol was way down.

Karla is not alone. Mary Adams began to notice slurred speech, balance problems and severe fatigue after she had been taking a commonly prescribed statin drug for three years. Her symptoms included loss of sleep due to restless and twitching limbs. She soon began to suffer loss of balance and problems with her gait and her fine motor skills were not what they had been. Once Mary took the next step and ceased taking her regular cholesterol-lowering pill she recovered her previous health.

So if cholesterol isn’t the villain what does cause heart disease? According to researchers Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, heart disease was very rare in 1900 responsible for about 8% of all deaths in the US compared with today’s figures of approximately 45%. The type of heart disease prevalent today is a myocardial infarction, or a heart attack where a blood clot obstructs the coronary arteries with the subsequent death of the heart muscle and is a form of heart disease that was almost unheard of before 1910. By 1950, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US.

We do need to counteract the high rates of heart disease. But rather than swallowing drugs that interfere with vital cholesterol function we need to adopt healthy lifestyles such as eating fresh foods, not smoking, avoiding pesticides and chemicals and taking up daily exercise.

Helen Lobato studied a Bachelor of Media Studies at La Trobe University. She is currently working for Spinifex Press. This piece first appeared on her blog, Allthenewsthatmatters. You can follow her on Twitter: @allmediamatters