The NY Times published an article earlier this month with the provocative title “You’re Over 75, and You’re Healthy. Why Are You Taking a Statin?”
It’s actually a balanced presentation of this difficult question (although it includes the seemingly obligatory anecdote of a patient getting severe muscle aches and weakness on Lipitor) and I agree with the concept that patients should demand a good thoughtful explanation from their PCP if they are on a statin. Shared physician and patient decision-making should occur irrespective of age when a statin is prescribed.
Unfortunately, the NY Times piece was triggered by and contains references to a weak observational study that was recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society..
A much better article on this same topic was published earlier in January in what is arguably the most respected cardiology journal in the world (Journal of the American College of Cardiology).
It contains what I think is a very reasonable discussion of the problem: the elderly at are a substantially higher risk of adverse “statin-associated symptoms” but also at much higher risk of stroke, heart attack and cardiovascular-related death than the young.
Key Points To Consider For Use of Statins In Elderly
Some key points from that article to ponder for those over 75 years
- Major European and North Americans national guidelines differ markedly in this area as this graphic illustrates
“At one end of the spectrum, the 2016 ESC/EAS guidelines miss great opportunities for safe, cheap, and evidence-based prevention in elderly individuals 66 to 75 years of age. At the other end of the spectrum, the 2014 NICE guideline provides near-universal treatment recommendations well into the very elderly >75 years of age where RCT evidence is sparse and more uncertain.”
reduced the risk of a composite endpoint (nonfatal MI, nonfatal stroke, or cardiovascular death) substantially by 49% (RR: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.38 to 0.69), and the risk was reduced by 26% (RR: 0.74; 95% CI: 0.61 to 0.91) in those ≥70 years of age. The efficacy was similar in individuals ≥70 and <65 years of age, indicating little heterogeneity in treatment effect by age. Today, nearly all apparently healthy elderly individuals have RCT evidence supporting statin efficacy.
3. The elderly compared to the younger are much more likely to have a nonfatal event which does not reduce their longevity but impacts their quality of life.
Thus, patient preferences are critical important for well-informed shared decision-making. If a patient only values longevity, there are little data to support primary prevention with statins in people >65 years of age. On the other hand, if preventing nonfatal and potentially disabling MI or stroke is of value to the patient, it might be reasonable to initiate statin therapy. From this perspective, it is noteworthy that the relative importance that people assign to avoiding death compared with avoiding nonfatal events appears to be highly age dependent. Although younger individuals <65 years of age weigh avoiding death highest, elderly individuals ≥65 years put a much higher weight on avoiding MI or stroke than death, These differences are compatible with elderly individuals having a greater focus on quality of life and avoiding disability than on extending life.
The Value of Derisking and Deprescribing
In my practice, I do a fair amount of deprescribing statins in the elderly. I have a very low threshold for initiating a trial of temporary statin cessation if there is any question that a patient’s symptoms could be statin-related (see here.)
The older the patient, the higher the bar for initiating statins and I think in all patients a search for subclinical atherosclerosis (coronary calcium scan or vascular ultrasound) helps inform the decision.
Previously, I had no term for this higher bar but I like the term the JACC paper introduces, derisking:
A promising approach to personalize treatment in elderly people is “derisking” by use of negative risk markers (i.e., absence of coronary artery calcification) to identify those at so low risk that statin therapy may safely be withheld . In the BioImage study of elderly individuals, for example, absence of coronary artery calcification was prevalent (≈1 of 3) and associated with exceptionally low ASCVD event rates
If you are >75 ponder all these factors and have an intense discussion with your doctor about taking a statin.
If you are still on the fence after this discussion consider a compromise approach that I have outlined here.