Category Archives: Statin Drug Therapy

Don’t Stop Taking Your Statin Cholesterol Drug Based On The Latest News Headline

In a previous post the skeptical cardiologist discussed his approach to a typical sixty-something male, Geo,  who was “on the fence” about taking the statin drug his PCP had recommended (see here.)

After acquiring more information on his level of subclinical atherosclerosis (coronary calcium and vascular screening), and discussing the risks and benefits of statins for primary prevention, I wrote about his experience in using my recommended “compromise approach.”

This approach utilizes a low dose of rosuvastatin taken intermittently with the goal of minimizing any statin side effects, but obtaining some of the benefits of statin drugs on cardiovascular risk reduction.

It worked well for Geo; taking 5 mg rosuvastatin three times weekly lowered his LDL-C (bad cholesterol) by 50%, and he had absolutely no side effects when I reported on him 6 months after starting the drug.

However, when I stayed with Geo and his lovely wife, Wendy, over Thanksgiving in their Annapolis, Maryland house, Geo revealed that he had stopped taking his statin.

Like many patients, he was swayed by a news report suggesting an important “new study” that suggested there was no relationship between cholesterol and heart disease, and that statin drugs were dangerous and should be stopped.

At first I thought the story that he had read was the one I reported here which (appropriately) questions the benefit of statins for primary prevention in patients over the age of 75.

However, after a bit of searching, Geo told me the article that caused him to stop taking his statin was a UK Daily Mail one entitled:

‘No evidence’ having high levels of bad cholesterol causes heart disease, claim 17 physicians as they call on doctors to ‘abandon’ statins

The Daily Mail article says at one point

But the new study, based on data of around 1.3 million patients, suggests doling out statins as a main form of treatment for heart disease is of ‘doubtful benefit’.

Is this really a “new study” that contradicts the great body of evidence showing that statin treatment is safe and effective in preventing heart attacks and stroke in those at high risk for cardiovascular events?

In reality, this is an opinion piece published in a questionable journal* without any new research, and it is the opinion of a collection of well-known (approaching notorious) statin denialists, members of a cult-like organization called The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics.(THINCS).

Larry Husten, who writes highly informed cardiac journalism at Cardiobrief, gives a good summary of their methods in this description of the authors of an editorial attacking the results of the JUPITER trial:

Nevertheless, the association of the authors with a group like THINCS raises some troublesome questions because, in fact, THINCS members don’t just object to one trial (JUPITER), or just one drug (rosuvastatin), or just the use of statins for primary prevention. They raise objections about ALL cholesterol-lowering trials, ALL cholesterol-lowering drugs, and the use of statins in ALL populations. They constantly harp on the dangerous side effects of  statins, and exploit any bit of evidence they can find to launch their attacks, always ignoring the considerable evidence that doesn’t support their views. So the Archives paper on JUPITER is not really part of the scientific process, since the authors have no interest in the give and take of medicine and science. Their only interest is to attack, at any point, and on any basis, anything related to mainstream science about cholesterol.

The lead and corresponding author, Uffe Ravnskov is the founder of THINCS and author of The Cholesterol Myths – Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease (2000), which is considered the bible of cholesterol contrarianism.

Ravnskov’s book has been severely criticized in Bob Carroll’s The Skeptic’s Dictionary, which outlines the distortions and deceptive techniques found in the cholesterol skeptics’ arguments.

Harriet Hall wrote an excellent analysis of THINCS 10 years ago at Science-Based Medicine and her concluding sentences are still highly relevant:

“to reject the cholesterol connection and statins entirely is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In my opinion, THINCS is spreading misinformation that could lead patients to refuse treatment that might prolong their life or at least prevent heart attacks and strokes.”

Indeed, if they were able to convince a highly intelligent patient like Geo, with a science background who also had easy access to the advice of a forward thinking cardiologist to stop taking his statins, who knows how many thousands have been convinced to stop their medications.

So my best advice for Geo and all of you taking statins is the following:

  1. Make sure you really need to be on the drug after engaging in shared-decision making with your physician and learning all you can about your personal risk of cardiovascular disease, the benefits of statins for you, and the potential side effects.
  2. Once you’ve made a decision based on good information and physician recommendation, try to ignore the latest headlines or internet stories that imply some new and striking information that impacts your health-most of these are unimportant.

The evidence for the benefit of statins is based on a deep body of scientific work, which will not be changed by any one new study. There is a very strong consensus amongst scientists who are actively working in the field of atherosclerosis, and amongst physicians who are actively caring for patients, that statins are very beneficial and safe. This consensus is similar to the consensus about the value of vaccines.

Science moves incrementally, and new studies inform those with open minds. The studies in this area that have been most significant in the last few years have actually strengthened the concept that drugs which lower LDL-C without causing other issues lower cardiovascular risk (see here on PCSK9 inhibitors and here on ezetimibe.)

Incrementally Yours,

-ACP

N.B. *The Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology”is an open access journal, many of which are predatory. Article are solicited and the authors pay to have their work published. For the article in question, the Western Vascular Institute payed the fee. It’s not clear that there is any peer-review process involved.

Some authors have suggested predatory journals are “the biggest threat to science since the inquisition”and I am very worried about the explosive growth in these very weak journals which exist solely to make money.

I realize that writing this piece will engender the wrath of many so before you leave comments impugning my integrity let me reiterate that I receive absolutely nothing from BIG PHARMA. In fact, by writing appropriate prescriptions for statin drugs I reduce my income as my compliant patients avoid hospital and office visits and all kinds of procedures for heart attacks and strokes!

Coronary Artery Calcium Scan Embraced By New AHA/ACC Cholesterol Guidelines: Will Insurance Coverage Follow?

The skeptical cardiologist has been utilizing coronary artery calcium (CAC) scans to help decide which patients are at high risk for heart attacks, and sudden cardiac death for the last decade. As I first described in 2014, (see here) those with higher than expected calcium scores warrant more aggressive treatment and those with lower scores less aggrressive treatment.

Although , as I have discussed previously, CAC is not the “mammography of the heart” it is incredibly helpful in sorting out personalized cardiovascular risk. We use standard risk factors like lipids, smoking, age, gender and diabetes to stratify individuals according to their 10 year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) but many apparent low risk individuals (often due to inherited familial risk) drop dead from ASCVD and many apparent high risk individuals don’t need statin therapy.

Previously, major guidelines from organizations like the AHA and the ACC did not recommend CAC testing to guide decision-making in this area. Consequently, CMS and major insurers have not covered CAC testing. When my patients get a CAC scan they pay 125$ out of their pocket.. For the affluent and pro-active this is not an obstacle, however those struggling financially often balk at the cost.

I was, therefore, very pleased to read that the newly updated AHA/ACC lipid guidelines (full PDF available here) emphasize the use of CAC for decision-making in intermediate risk patients.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those patients aged 40-75 without known ASCVD whose 10 year risk of stroke and heart attack is between 7.5% and 20% (intermediate, see here on using risk estimator) the guidelines recommend “consider measuring CAC”.

If the score is zero, for most consider no statin. If score >100 and/or >75th percentile, statin therapy should be started.

I don’t agree totally with this use of CAC but it is a step forward. For example, how I approach a patient with CAC of 1-99 depends very much on what percentile the patient is at. A score of 10 in a 40 year old indicates marked premature build up of atherosclerotic plaque but in a 70 year old man it indicates they are at much lower risk than predicted by standard risk factors. The first individual we would likely recommend statin therapy and very aggressive lifestyle changes whereas the second man we could discuss  taking off statins.

Neil Stone, MD, one of the authors of the guidelines was quoted  as saying that the imaging technique is “the best tiebreaker we have now” when the risk-benefit balance is uncertain.

“Most should get a statin, but there are people who say, ‘I’ve got to know more, I want to personalize this decision to the point of knowing whether I really, really need it.’ … There are a number of people who want to be certain about where they stand on the risk continuum and that’s how we want to use it,”

Indeed, I’ve written quite a bit about my approach to helping patients “get off the fence” on whether or not to take a statin drug.

I recommend reading “Are you on the fence about taking a statin drug” to understand the details of using CAC in decision-making and the follow up post on a compromise approach to reducing ASCVD risk.

Deriskingly Yours,

-ACP

Full title of these new guidelines includes an alphabet soup of organization acronyms

2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol

N.B. For your reading pleasure I’ve copied the section in the new guidelines that discusses in detail coronary artery calcium.

Two interesting sentences which I’ll need to discuss some other time

-When the CAC score is zero, some investigators favor remeasurement of CAC after 5 to 10 years

CAC scans should be ordered by a clinician who is fully versed in the pros and cons of diagnostic radiology.

In MESA (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis), CAC scanning delivered 0.74 to l.27 mSv of radiation, which is similar to the dose of a clinical mammogram 

-4.4.1.4. Coronary Artery Calcium

Substantial advances in estimation of risk with CAC scoring have been made in the past 5 years. One purpose of CAC scoring is to reclassify risk identification of patients who will potentially benefit from statin therapy. This is especially useful when the clinician and patient are uncertain whether to start a statin. Indeed, the most important recent observation has been the finding that a CAC score of zero indicates a low ASCVD risk for the subsequent 10 years (S4.4.1.4-1–S4.4.1.4-8). Thus, measurement of CAC potentially allows a clinician to withhold statin therapy in patients showing zero CAC. There are exceptions. For example, CAC scores of zero in persistent cigarette smokers, patients with diabetes mellitus, those with a strong family history of ASCVD, and possibly chronic inflammatory conditions such as HIV, may still be associated with substantial 10-year risk (S4.4.1.4-9–S4.4.1.4-12). Nevertheless, a sizable portion of middle-aged and older patients have zero CAC, which may allow withholding of statin therapy in those intermediate risk patients who would otherwise have a high enough risk according to the PCE to receive statin therapy (Figure 2). Most patients with CAC scores ≥100 Agatston units have a 10-year risk of ASCVD≥7.5%, a widely accepted threshold for initiation of statin therapy (S4.4.1.4-13). With increasing age, 10- year risk accompanying CAC scores of 1 to 99 rises, usually crossing the 7.5% threshold in later middle age (S4.4.1.4-13). When the CAC score is zero, some investigators favor remeasurement of CAC after 5 to 10 years (S4.4.1.4-14–S4.4.1.4-16). CAC measurement has no utility in patients already treated with statins. Statins are associated with slower progression of overall coronary atherosclerosis volume and reduction of high-risk plaque features, yet statins increase the CAC score (S4.4.1.4-17). A prospective randomized study of CAC scoring showed improved risk factor modification without an increase in downstream medical testing or cost (S4.4.1.4-18). In MESA (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis), CAC scanning delivered 0.74 to l.27 mSv of radiation, which is similar to the dose of a clinical mammogram (S4.4.1.4- 19). CAC scans should be ordered by a clinician who is fully versed in the pros and cons of diagnostic radiology.

Downloaded from http://ahajournals.org by on November 11, 2018

from Grundy SM, et al.
2018 Cholesterol Clinical Practice Guidelines

Should You Take A Statin If You Are Over 75?: The Value of DeRisking in The Elderly

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

  1. 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.”

2. Data on from 2 large primary prevention trial (JUPITER and HOPE-3) show that rosuvastatin (Ridker, et al)

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.

Deriskingly Yours,

-ACP

Do Statins Cause Memory Loss? The Science, The Media, The Statin-Denialist Cult, and The Nocebo Effect

The Skeptical Cardiologist was recently contacted by a television reporter  working on a segment about statins. and looking for a cardiologist to interview who “is concerned about the cognitive side effects of these drugs.”

Since I regularly prescribe statin drugs to my patients to reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke,  I am very concerned about any possible side effects from them, cognitive or otherwise. However, in treating hundreds of patients with statins, I have not observed a consistent significant effect on brain function.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement in 2012 regarding rare postmarketing reports of ill-defined cognitive impairment associated with statin use it came as quite a surprise to most cardiologists.

The FDA made a change in the patient information on all statin drugs which stated:

Memory loss and confusion have been reported with statin use. These reported events were generally not serious and went away once the drug was no longer being taken

This FDA statement was surprising because prior observational and randomized controlled trials had suggested that patients who took statins were less likely to have cognitive dysfunction than those who didn’t.

Early studies implied that statins might actually protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact these signals triggered two studies testing if statins could slow cognitive decline in patients with established Alzheimer’s disease  One study used 80 mg atorvastatin versus placebo and a second 40 mg simvastatin versus placebo and both showed no effect on the decline of cognitive function over 18 months.

More recently, multiple reviews and meta-analyses have examined the data and concluded that there is no significant effect of statins on cognitive function. Importantly, these have been written by reputable physician-scientists with no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

 

Data Show No Evidence of Causality Despite Case Reports

The FDA added the warning to statin patient information based on case reports  Occasional reports of patients developing memory loss on a statin do not prove that statins are a significant cause of cognitive dysfunction.

Case reports have to  be viewed in the context of all the other scientific studies indicating no consistent evidence of negative effects of the statins. Case reports are suspect for several reasons:

First, patients receiving statins are at increased risk for memory loss because of associated risk factors for atherosclerosis and advancing age. A certain percentage of such patients are going to notice memory loss independent of any medications.

Second. The nocebo effect: If a patient taking a statin is told that the drug will cause a particular side effect,that patient will be more likely to notice and report that particular side effect.

A recent study in The Lancet looked at reported side effects in patients taking atorvastatin versus placebo and found substantial evidence for the nocebo effect.

Analysis of the trial data revealed that when patients were unaware whether they were taking a statin or a placebo, the number of side effects reported was similar in those taking the statin and those taking placebo. However, if patients knew they were taking statins, reports of muscle-related side effects in particular increased dramatically, by up to 41 per cent.

Third, a review of the FDA post-marketing surveillance data showed the rate of memory loss with statins is not significantly higher than for other non-statin cardiovascular medications (1.9 per million prescriptions for statins , 1.6 per million prescriptions for losartan) and clopidogrel (1.9 per million prescriptions for clopidogrel.)

What Most Media Prefer: Controversy And Victims

I thought my experience and perspective on statins and cognitive function might be useful for a wider audience of patients to hear so I agreed to be interviewed. After I expressed interest the  reporter responded:

I would like to interview you and also a person who has experienced memory and/or thinking problems that they attribute to statin use.  
 I responded with “let me see what I can find,”  although I was concerned that  this reporter was searching for a cardiologist to support attention-grabbing claims of  severe side effects of statins rather than seeking a balanced, unbiased perspective from a knowledgeable and experienced cardiologist.
If I produced a “victim” of statin-related memory loss this would boost ratings.
I then began racking my brain to come up with a patient who had clearly had statin-related memory loss or thinking problems. I asked my wonderful MA Jenny (who remembers details about patients that I don’t) if she could recall any cases. Ultimately, we both came up without any patients for the interview. (Any patient of mine reading this with definite statin memory loss please let me know and I will amend my post. However, I won’t be posting anecdotes outside of my practice.)
I have had a few patients relate to me that they feel like their memory is not as good as it was and wonder if it could be from a medication they are on.  Invariably, the patient has been influenced by one of the  statin fear-mongering sites on the internet (or a friend/relative who has been influenced by such a site.)
I wrote about one such site in response to a patient question a while back:
The link appears to be a promotional piece for a book by Michael Cutler, MD. Cutler’s website appears to engage in fear-mongering with respect to statins for the purpose of selling his books and promoting his “integrative” practice. I would refer you to my post entitled “functional medicine is fake medicine”. Integrative medicine is another code word for pseudoscientific medicine and practitioners should be assiduously avoided.
The piece starts with describing the case of Duane Graveline, a vey troubled man who spent the latter part of his life attempting to scare patients from taking statins. Here is his NY Times obituary.
You can judge for yourself if you want to base decisions on his recommendations.
There is no scientific evidence to suggest statins cause dementia.
An Internet-Driven Cult With Deadly Consequences
Steve Nissen recently wrote an eloquent article which accuses statin deniers of  being  an “internet–driven cult with deadly consequences.”  Nissen has done extremely important research helping us better understand atherosclerosis  and is known for being a patient advocate: calling out drug companies when they are promoting unsafe drugs.
I have immense respect for his honesty, lack of bias, and his courage to be outspoken .  He writes:

“Statins have developed a bad reputation with the public, a phenomenon driven largely by proliferation on the Internet of bizarre and unscientific but seemingly persuasive criticism of these drugs. Typing the term statin benefits into a popular Internet search en- gine yields 655 000 results. A similar search using the term statin risks yields 3 530 000 results. One of the highest-ranking search results links to an article titled “The Grave Dangers of Statin Drugs—and the Surprising Benefits of Cholesterol”. We are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our patients to Web sites de- veloped by people with little or no scientific expertise, who often pedal “natural” or “drug-free” remedies for elevated cholesterol levels. These sites rely heavily on 2 arguments: statin denial, the proposition that cholesterol is not related to heart disease, and statin fear, the notion that lowering serum cholesterol levels will cause serious adverse effects, such as muscle or hepatic toxicity— or even worse, dementia.”

He goes on to point out that this misinformation is contributing to a low rate of compliance with taking statins. Observational studies suggest that noncompliance with statins significantly raises the risk of death from heart attack.

The reasons for patient noncompliance, Nissen goes on to say, can be related to the promotion of totally unproven supplements and fad diets as somehow safer and more effective than statin therapy:

“The widespread advocacy of unproven alternative cholesterol-lowering therapies traces its origins to the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Incredibly, this law places the responsibility for ensuring the truthfulness of dietary supplement advertising with the Federal Trade Commission, not the U.S. Food and Drug Administra-tion. The bill’s principal sponsors were congressional representatives from states where many of the companies selling supplements are headquartered. Nearly 2 decades after the DSHEA was passed, the array of worthless or harmful dietary supplements on the market is staggering, amounting to more than $30 billion in yearly sales. Manufacturers of these products commonly imply benefits that have never been confirmed in formal clinical studies.”

Dealing With Statin Side Effects In My Practice

When a patient tells me they believe they are having a side effect from the statin they are taking (and this applies to any medication they believe is causing them side effects), I take their concerns very seriously. After 30 years of practice, I’ve concluded that in any individual patient, it is possible for any drug to cause  side effects.  And, chances are that if we don’t address the side effects the patient won’t take the medication.

If the side effect is significant I will generally tell the patient to stop the statin and report to me how they feel after two to four weeks.

If there is no improvement I have the patient resume the medication and we generally reach a consensus that the side effect was not due to the medication.

If there is a significant improvement, I accept the possibility that the side effect could be from the drug. This doesn’t prove it, because it is entirely possible that the side effect resolved for other reasons coincidentally with stopping the statin. Muscle and joint aches are extremely common and they often randomly come and go.

At this point, I will generally recommend a trial at low dose of another statin (typically rosuvastatin or livalo.)  If the patient was experiencing muscle aches and they return we are most likely dealing with a patient with statin related myalgias. However, most patients are able to tolerate low dose and less frequent administration of rosuvastatin or Livalo.

For all other symptoms, it is extremely unusual to see a return on rechallenge with statin and so we continue statin long term therapy.

Today a patient told me he thought the rosuvastatin we started 4 weeks ago was causing him to have more diarrhea. I informed him that there is no evidence that rosuvastatin causes diarrhea more often than a placebo and had no reason based on its chemistry to suspect it would. (Although I’m sure there is a forum somewhere on the internet where patients have reported this). Fortunately he accepted my expert opinion and will continue taking the drug.

If the symptoms persist and the patient continue to believe it is due to the statin, we will go through the process I described above. And, since every patient is unique, it is possible that my patient is having a unique or idiosyncratic reaction to the statin that only occurs in one out of a million patients and thus is impossible to determine causality.

Since statins are our most effective and best tolerated weapon in the war against our biggest killer, it behooves both patients and physicians to have a high threshold  for stopping them altogether. Having such a high threshold means filtering out the noise from attention-seeking media and the internet-driven denials cult thus minimizing the nocebo effect

Antinocebonically Yours

-ACP

N.B. It turns out the reporter had an open mind about the issue of statin-related memory loss. We had a good discussion  and at some point you may see the skeptical cardiologist on TV being interviewed on the topic.

I could bring to the interview one of  my many patients who since starting to take statins have  not had a heart attack or stroke and who have taken statins for decades without side effects.

Now that would make for some compelling and exciting TV!

For a nice discussion of Nissen’s article see Larry Husten’s excellent piece at Cardiobrief.org here (/nissen-calls-statin-denialism-a-deadly-internet-driven-cult/)

 

Unsure About Taking A Statin For High Cholesterol? Consider A Compromise Approach

In an earlier post the skeptical cardiologist introduced Geo, a 61 year old male with no risk factors for heart attack or stroke other than a high cholesterol. His total cholesterol was 249, LDL (bad) 154, HDL (good) 72 and triglycerides 116.

His doctor had recommended that he take a statin drug but Geo balked at taking one due to concerns about side effects and requested my input. My first steps were to gather more information.

-I calculated his 10 year risk of stroke or heart attack at 8.4% (treatment with statin typically felt to benefit individuals with 10 year risk >7.5%) and as I have previously noted, this is not unusual for a man over age 60.

-I assessed him for any hidden  or subclinical atherosclerosis and found

The vascular ultrasound showed below normal carotid thickness and no plaque and his coronary calcium score was 18,  putting him at the 63rd  percentile. This is slightly higher than average white men his age.

So Geo definitely has atherosclerotic plaque in his coronary arteries. This puts him at risk for heart attack and stroke but not a lot higher risk than most men his age.

Strictly speaking, since he hasn’t already had a heart attack or stroke, treating him with a statin is a form of primary prevention. However, we know that atherosclerotic plaque has already developed in his arteries and at some point, perhaps years from now it will have consequences.

What is the best approach to reduce Geo’s risk?

It’s essential  to look closely at lifestyle changes in everyone to reduce cardiac risk.

The lifestyle components that influence risk are

  1. Cigarette Smoking (by far the strongest)
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Obesity (Obviously related to #1 and #2)
  5. Stress
  6. Sleep

Patients who try to change to what they perceive as a heart healthy diet by switching to non-fat dairy and eliminating all red meat will not substantially lower risk (see here.) Even if you are possess the rock-hard discipline to stay on a radically low fat diet like the Esselstyn diet or the Pritikin diet there are no good data supporting their  efficacy in preventing cardiac disease.

Geo was not far from theMediterranean diet I recommend but would probably benefit from increased veggie and nut consumption. He was not overweight and he doesn’t smoke. I encouraged him to engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly.

Low Dose, Intermittent Rosuvastatin

I engaged in shared decision-making with Geo.  Informing him, as best I could, of the potential side effects and benefits of statin therapy.

After a long discussion we decided to try a compromise between no therapy and the guideline recommended moderate intensive dose statin therapy.

This approach utilizes a low dose of rosuvastatin taken intermittently with the goal of minimizing any statin side effect but obtaining some of the benefits of statin drugs on  cardiovascular risk reduction.

I have many patients who have been unable to tolerate other statin drugs in any dosage due to statin related muscle aches but who tolerate this particular  treatment and I  see substantial reductions in the LDL (bad) cholesterol with this approach.

Studies have shown that rosuvastatin 5–10 mg or atorvastatin 10–20 mg given every other day produce LDL-C reduction of 20–40 %

Studies have also shown that In patients with previous statin intolerance, rosuvastatin administered once or twice weekly (at a mean dose of 10 mg per week) achieved an LDL-C reduction of 23–29% and was well tolerated by 74–80 % of patients.

In a recent report from a specialized lipid clinic, 90 % of patients referred for intolerance to multiple statins were actually able to tolerate statin therapy, although the majority was at a reduced dose and less-than-daily dosing.

Results in Geo

After several months of taking 5 mg rosuvastatin twice weekly Geo felt fine with no discernible side effects. He obtained repeat cholesterol  levels:

His LDL had dropped 52% from 140 to 92.

Hopefully, this LDL reduction plus the non-cholesterol lowering beneficial properties of statins (see here) will substantially lower Geo’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

We need randomized studies testing long-term outcomes using this approach to make it evidence-based. But in medicine we frequently don’t have studies that apply to  specific patient situations. In these cases shared decision-making in order to find solutions that fit the individual patient’s concerns and experience becomes paramount.

Faithfully Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

Are You Paying More For Rosuvastatin (Generic Crestor) Than Brand Name Crestor?

The skeptical cardiologist was shocked to hear from a patient last week that she would have to pay considerably more for generic rosuvastatin (GR) than Crestor, its brand name equivalent.

Crestor is the most potent statin we have at lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, raising HDL (good) cholesterol, and  preventing strokes and heart attacks.  It is also the best tolerated statin in my experience; I use it frequently at low or intermittent dosages in patients who have developed muscle aches on other statins.

In comparison to atorvastatin (Lipitor, the most widely prescribed statin), Crestor is less likely to interact with other medications and (very important for a surprising number of my patients), you can consume grapefruit when taking it.

When a generic (rosuvastatin calcium) of Crestor became available last year I rejoiced, believing that the high cost of Crestor would now drop to the levels we have typically seen with other generic statins.

I have been giving Crestor sample packs like these to my patients for years. Alas, they will fade away. One downside to going generic.
I have been giving Crestor sample packs like these to my patients for years. Alas, they will fade away. One downside to going generic.

For example, when Lipitor (atorvastatin, the statin market leader for 20 years) went generic, patients no longer worried about its cost.

Initially it seemed GR was much more affordable for my patients than Crestor, however recently, I have had many of them report a rise in its cost.

Why Would The Generic Cost More Than Crestor?

The reasons for brand name versus generic pricing are many and complex, and they yield insight into the legal machinations that Big Pharma engages in to maintain high patient pharmaceutical costs.

This NY Times piece from July, 2016 reveals  how hard AstraZeneca fought to protect its exclusivity in selling Crestor and to prevent generics from entering the market. AstraZeneca’s last tactic involved a lawsuit claiming that their patent was protected by the orphan drug act. They lost and were heavily criticized:

“This case is not about the medical needs of a small population of pediatric patients with a rare disease,” the F.D.A. and Justice Department said in a brief filed in the lawsuit. “It is about AstraZeneca’s profit-driven desire to substantially extend its virtual monopoly on one of the world’s most popular medicines.”

There are other factors that slow the drop in generic prices. Consumer Reports, writing on the anticipated release of GR in May quoted an expert thusly:

“While some pharmacies drop the price as generics enter the market, others will hold it near the brand-name price as long as possible.” They get away with it, he says, because many customers who have health insurance pay a set co-pay regardless of the retail price. But those consumers who pay the entire cost of the drug themselves because they don’t have insurance or have a high deductible may not see the substantial savings that should come with generic availability.”

What an individual pays for drugs varies wildly depending on their insurance coverage. These costs are extremely hard for a physician to anticipate and rarely reflect the actual cost of drugs. Thus, in America, patients as consumers are often isolated from the true costs of pharmaceuticals to society.

Geo (he who was “on the fence” about taking a statin) asked me the following reasonable question about his GR prescription:

I did not pay anything for the 25 pills, however the paperwork states a cost of $220 if I had to buy this outside of a health insurance plan. Do you know if the health insurance company is being charged the $220, or do they negotiate a lower cost with the manufacturer?
I don’t have that answer, but would love to know it. This kind of information is hard to get at.
Send Me Your Observations On The Cost of Generic Rosuvastatin
I would like to get input from my patients and readers on their experience regarding the cost of GR to them and/or their insurance company.
I’d also appreciate input from those in the pharmaceutical or insurance portion of this equation (I know I have at least one patient who is in the pharmaceutical industry).
Finally, if any of you have experience with purchasing GR online from international pharmacies, please share it below. For example, this site claimed in May, 2016:
Ninety pills of generic rosuvastatin cost a whopping $795 at a Walgreens in Brooklyn, NY, but 90 pills of brand name Crestor is $45.65 at a low-cost international online pharmacy,
Specifically Yours,
-ACP

Are You On The Fence About Taking A Statin Drug?

The father of the eternal fiancee’ of the skeptical cardiologist (FOEFOSC, let’s call him “Geo”) is a typical 61 year old white male. A year ago his primary care physician informed him that he needed to start taking a statin drug because his cholesterol was high. The note accompanying this recommendation also stated “work harder on diet and exercise to get LDL<130.”  No particulars on how to change his current diet and exercise program were provided.

Neither of Geo’s parents and none of his siblings have had heart problems at an early age and Geo is very active without any symptoms. His diet is reasonably free of processed food and added sugar, he is not overweight and his blood pressures are fine. Due to concern about side effects he had read about on the internet and because he doesn’t like taking medications , Geo balked at taking the recommended statin,

Reluctance to start a new and likely life-long drug is understandable especially when combined with a constant stream of internet-based bashing of statins.

My advice was sought and I suggested a few things that would be helpful in making a more informed decision:

-Calculate Geo’s 10 year risk of heart attack and stroke using the ACC ASCVD Risk estimator app.

-Assess for early or advanced build-up of atherosclerotic or fatty plaque in the carotid arteries (vascular ultrasound) and coronary arteries (coronary calcium scan).

As I’ve pointed out before (here), the vast majority of men over the age of 60 move into a 10 year risk category >7.5%, no matter how great their lifestyle is, and Geo was no exception with a risk of 8.4%. His total cholesterol was 249, LDL (bad) 154, HDL (good) 72 and triglycerides 116.

The vascular ultrasound showed below normal carotid thickness and no plaque and his coronary calcium score was 18,  putting him at the 63rd  percentile. This is slightly higher than average white men his age.

When Geo presented these findings to his PCP, he seemed unaware of the ASCVD risk estimator (recommended by AHA/ACC guidelines first published in 2013), which no longer suggests LDL levels as goals. His PCP also seemed miffed that he had gotten the coronary calcium scan. Geo felt like the PCP’s attitude was “shut up and do what I tell you.”

Geo’s PCP’s approach exemplifies a not-uncommon traditional doctor-patient relationship, but a better approach is shared decision-making (see here). Geo, like many patients, welcomes more information on the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment so that he can participate in deciding the best course of action.

I steer patients who want more complete information towards my  evidence-based blog posts on statins (see here for discussion on statin side effects and here for statin benefits beyond cholesterol lowering.)

By giving patients more information on the risks, side effects, and benefits of the statin drugs along with a better understanding of their overall risk of heart disease and stroke, we can hopefully move more patients “off the fence” and onto the most appropriate treatment.

Stay tuned to find out what The Skeptical Cardiologist Recommended for Geo.

Decisively Yours

-ACP

For more discussion on the value of coronary artery calcification (CAC) and the value of statin in lower risk patients see this recent paper entitled “Refining Statin Prescribing in Lower-Risk Individuals: Informing Risk/Benefit Decisions”(PDF refining-statin-prescribing-in-lower-risk-individuals-informing-riskbenefit-decisions)

If you’d like to read the recently published recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force on statins for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease see here. Importantly this panel of unbiased experts concluded that statin therapy significantly reduced overall mortality and cardiovascular mortality. In addition, the review found no increased risk of diabetes overall with statin therapy. The only trial that identified an increased risk was using high intensity statin therapy (Crestor (rosuvastatin) >20 mg).

And,  since the internet is jammed with people who believe statins robbed them of their brain power, I would advise noting that the writers concluded  “These findings are consistent with those from a recent systematic review of randomized trials and observational studies that found no adverse associations of statins with incidence of Alzheimer disease, dementia, or decreased scores on tests of cognitive performance.”

 

 

Donald Trump Has Moderate Plaque Buildup In His Coronary Arteries and his Risk For A Cardiac Event Is Seven Times Hilary Clinton’s Risk

Donald Trump recently appeared on the Dr. Oz show and handed a letter to the celebrity medical charlatan and TV host, Mehmet Oz.

The letter was written by his personal physician , Dr. Harold Bornstein,  screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-3-21-11-pm
and summarized various  laboratory and test  results which led Bornstein to conclude  that Mr. Trump is in excellent health (Bornstein did not repeat his earlier, bizarre statement that “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)

From a cardiovascular standpoint the following sentence stood out:

“His calcium score in 2013 was 98.”

Regular readers of the skeptical cardiologist should be familiar with the coronary calcium scan or score (CAC) by now.  I’ve written about it a lot (here, here, and here) and use it frequently in my patients, advocating its use to help better assess certain  patient’s risk of sudden death and heart attacks.

coronary calcium
Image from a patient with a large amount of calcium in the widowmaker or LAD coronary artery (LAD CA).

The CAC scan utilizes computed tomography (CT)  X-rays, without the need for intravenous contrast, to generate a three-dimensional picture of the heart. Because calcium is very apparent on CT scans, and because we can visualize the arteries on the surface of the heart that supply blood to the heart (the coronary arteries), the CAC scan can detect and quantify calcium in the coronary arteries with great accuracy and reproducibility.

Calcium only develops in the coronary arteries when there is atherosclerotic plaque. The more plaque in the arteries, the more calcium. Thus, the more calcium, the more plaque and the greater the risk of heart attack and death from heart attack.

What Does Donald’s Trump’s Calcium Score Tell Us About His Risk Of A Major Cardiac Event?

We know that, on average, even if you take a statin drug (Trump is taking rosuvastatin or Crestor), the calcium score goes up at least 10% per year which means that 3 years after that 98 score we would predict Trump’s calcium score to be around 120.

Based on large, observational studies of asymptomatic patients, Calcium scores of 101 to 400 put a patient in the moderately high risk category for cardiovascular events.

When I read a calcium score of 101-400, I make the following statements (based on the most widely utilized reference from Rumberger

This patient has:

-Definite, at least moderate atherosclerotic plaque burden

-Non-obstructive CAD (coronary artery disease) highly likely, although obstructive disease possible

-Implications for cardiovascular risk: Moderately High

Patients in this category have a 7-fold risk of major  cardiac events (heart attack or death from coronary heart disease) compared to an individual with a zero calcium scorescreen-shot-2016-10-04-at-3-16-25-pm

 

 

Clinton versus Trump: Zero is Better

Since we know that Hillary Clinton recently had a calcium scan with a score of zero, we can estimate that Trump’s risk of having a heart attack or dying from a cardiac event is markedly  higher than Clinton’s.

Clinton, born October 26, 1947 is 68 years old and we can enter her calcium score into the MESA calcium calculator to see how she compares to other women her age. A  coronary calcium score of 6 is at the 50th percentile for this group.

Interestingly, Trump’s score of 98 at age 67 years was exactly at the 50th percentile. In other words half of all white men age 67 years are below 98 and half are above 98, creeping into the moderately high risk  category.

(This should not be surprising, I touched on the high estimated cardiovascular risk of all aging men in my post entitled “Should all men over age sixty take a statin drug?”)

So, based on his coronary calcium score from 2013, Donald Trump has a  moderate build up of atherosclerotic plaque in his coronary arteries and is at a seven-fold higher risk of a cardiac event compared to Hilary Clinton.

Let the law suits and tweets begin!

Electorally Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

 

Does Pravastatin Lower Your Risk of Diabetes?: The Joys of Continuing Education From Patients

One of the amazing perquisites of being a doctor is the opportunity to talk to a wide diversity of individuals with fascinating backgrounds and interests. I’ve always had some appreciation of this during my office interactions, but with age and ripening, I have come to relish and savor these conversations.

The skeptical cardiologist learns something from virtually every patient visit.  On a recent office day, I received patient pearls on topics ranging from Viking River cruises in Germany, to the method by which Express Scripts squeezes money from Walgreens and drug manufacturers, to certain novels of T. Coraghessan Boyle not centered on the maniacal vegetarian John Harvey Kellogg.

Not uncommonly, I’ll learn something about medicine or cardiology if I listen closely to my patients and keep an open mind.

I saw a 69 year old woman (we’ll call her Donna) the other day who had advanced plaque in her coronary arteries and with whom I had  initiated a discussion on the pros and cons of taking a statin drug to lower her risk of heart attack and stroke. This was not the first time we had talked about this topic; in previous visits she had shared with me her great fear of statin side effects and her desire to modify risk by dietary modification. On this visit, she came prepared with more research she had done on statins, and told me she was concerned about an increased  risk of diabetes with statin drugs.

I gave her my standard spiel:  statins, especially more potent ones like rosuvastatin and atorvastatin, appear to increase the risk of diabetes by 10-20%, however, this is offset by the benefits of statins, especially in someone with significant atherosclerosis, in reducing heart attack and stroke.

Donna then told me that she had read that pravastatin lowers the risk of diabetes. I hadn’t heard this (or more likely this slipped out of my ever-shrinking cerebral database) previously. Ten years ago, in the era before routine use of electronic health records (EHR), I would have had to just admit my ignorance and promise to look into that claim later (something that would not consistently happen due to time constraints and forgetfulness).  However, now I enter the patient exam room with my MacBook Air, primarily to access the patient’s EHR and look at old notes, cardiac tests etc.

Increasingly I also use the Mac to quickly look up information about a topic the patient has brought to my attention – either double checking what I believe to be true or researching claims I am unfamiliar with.

Often, the topic raised is the “snake oil du jour” (for example, is turmeric a cardiovascular panacea?), but in this case and many others, it is a relevant question about the nuances of disease or my proposed treatment.

A quick search (20 seconds) pulled up a 2009 meta-analysis of randomized trials of statins and the risk of diabetes. Sure enough, one of these trials (the West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study) actually showed that patients treated with 40 mg of  pravastatin had a 30% lower risk of developing diabetes.  Four studies showed no effect of statins on risk of developing diabetes and only one, the JUPITER trial utilizing rosuvastatin (Crestor), showed a slight increase.

For some patients like Donna, a higher risk of diabetes may be a deal breaker for taking a life-saving medication. Although I can confidently tell her that the benefits outweigh the risks, if she has a specific fear of diabetes, perhaps related to a family member who had horrific complications of the disease, she could easily decline to take statins.

In Donna’s case, this new information about pravastatin, confirmed by the wonders of Google and a fast WiFi connection led to her giving statins (in the form of pravastatin) a chance.

I’ll remember this patient-triggered drop of wisdom for future discussions with patients whose  grave fear of diabetes makes them balk at taking statins.

Corasonically Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

 

 

 

west of scotland

http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/10/1941.full

Death Knell For Niacin For Lipids Sounded by FDA?

The skeptical cardiologist stopped writing new prescriptions for niacin extended release tablets in 2011. For any patient who was taking niacin, I recommended stopping it.

Because niacin had favorable effects on the cholesterol profile, physicians had been utilizing it for many years in high risk patients on statins who had low HDL  (good cholesterol) and/or high triglycerides.

The rationale was that, since high HDL was associated with lower risk of heart attacks, raising the HDL would lower that risk. Similarly, lowering the triglycerides would improve cardiovascular risks.

While niacin certainly improved the cholesterol profile, there was no good evidence that starting it in a patient already on statin would improve cardiovascular outcomes. The cholesterol profile is a surrogate endpoint: the actual treatment goal is reducing cardiovascular disease.

In 2011, the AIM-HIGH study proved there was no benefit to adding niacin to good statin therapy despite increasing HDL from 35 to 42 mg/dl, lowering triglycerides and lowering LDL. This and other studies showing no benefit of niacin therapy (and worrisome adverse effects) should have resulted in the total cessation of niacin prescriptions, especially  in patients on statins.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard amongst physicians, and the allure of raising HDL and lowering triglycerides with niacin persisted despite a lack of evidence of any benefit in lowering cardiovacular risk.

Yesterday, the FDA announced it was removing from the market two  drugs made by Abbvie, Advicor and Simcor, which are combinations of extended release niacin plus lovastatin or simvastatin, and removed its approved indication for niacin ER plus statin for lowering CHD risk stating:

“Based on the collective evidence from several large cardiovascular outcome trials (Refs. 1-3), the Agency has concluded that the totality of the scientific evidence no longer supports the conclusion that a drug-induced reduction in triglyceride levels and/or increase in HDL-cholesterol levels in statin-treated patients results in a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular events. Consistent with this conclusion, FDA has determined that the benefits of niacin ER tablets and fenofibric acid DR capsules for coadministration with statins no longer outweigh the risks, and the approvals for this indication should be withdrawn.”

This is good news for patients whose physicians were keeping them on the unproven brand name combination drugs, Advicor and Simcor.

There are still legitimate uses of niacin to prevent vitamin deficiencies but If you are still taking some form of niacin ER for the purpose of preventing heart disease with or without a statin I recommend presenting your doctor with the link to the FDA pronouncement above and having a good discussion with him about the rationale for staying on it.

The other drug mentioned in the announcement, fenofibric acid,  is far less often prescribed and is not available as a combination. It is the most effective drug we have for extremely high triglyceride levels over 500 mg/dl which can cause pancreatitis. I have a few patients on the generic fenofibric acid strictly for the purpose of lowering their dangerously high triglycerides but not for the indication of lowering their cardiovascular risk.

Nonsurrogateingly Yours

-ACP