Tag Archives: statin drugs

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!

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

Are You Sabotaging Your Heart With Statin Drugs?

No, you are not “sabotaging” your heart with statin drugs. Neither are you “wrecking” your heart.

But that title probably got your attention if you are taking a statin drug and thought that it was helping your heart.

Typical appearance of Newsmax Health. Note that  the offer to assess cardiac risk is a self-serving promo of the book on natural cardiac cures written by the author of the article on the left which summarizes only the negatives of bypass surgery
Typical appearance of Newsmax Health. Note that the offer to assess cardiac risk is a self-serving promo of the book on natural cardiac cures, written by the author of the article on the left, which summarizes only the negatives of bypass surgery

This question is prominently displayed on the Health portion of a news website called Newsmax, that somehow interrupted my web surfing today. If you click on the banner, you will get to listen to the words of Dr. David Brownstein, “America’s most popular family physician.”

Dr. Brownstein, in my opinion, should more properly be termed “one of America’s most popular quacks, charlatans and purveyors of misinformation in order to market useless junk.”

What Brownstein says can be found on multiple similar sites across the internet which are promoting “alternative” or “natural” approaches to high cholesterol.

His claims can be summarized as follows:

  • statin drugs do nothing to protect you from heart attacks
  • statin drugs “weaken your heart,” muscles, cause fatigue and lower your sex drive, damage your kidneys and liver
  • statin drugs prevent the formation of cholesterol which is essential for brain, sex hormone and vitamin D production
  • 1/2 of people with heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels
  • CHF is increasing in frequency and it is related to an increase in statins and consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates
  • Big pharma has perpetrated the biggest fraud in medical history on the American public by brainwashing doctors, beginning in medical school, to prescribe statin drugs

These claims resonate with patients who are reluctant to take medications and who feel that “natural” approaches to prevention and treatment are superior.

Brownstein uses a combination of alarmist rhetoric and pseudoscientific jargon that appeals to those seeking alternatives.

Let’s look at his claims.

Do Statins Prevent heart Attacks?

Statins unequivocally prevent heart attacks in patients who have had heart attacks or have evidence of advanced vascular disease due to atherosclerosis. This is called secondary prevention and there are almost no cardiologists/scientists with any credibility who dispute the value of statins in secondary prevention.

The only specific study that Brownstein cites is the ASCOT-LLA study, published in 2003 which looked at ten thousand patients with hypertension, no heart disease and low or normal cholesterol levels, half of whom got 10 mg of atorvastatin and half a placebo.

This was a primary prevention study and showed such a benefit of the atorvastatin on reducing heart attack and coronary deaths that the study was stopped early, at 3.3 years at which time 154 patients receiving placebo versus 100 receiving atorvastatin had had heart attacks or died from coronary disease.

This was a highly significant reduction in events. There are several ways to look at this data and present it to patients; Brownstein implies that “Big pharma” presented the most favorable way, which is that there was a 36% reduction in relative risk.

The absolute risk of an event in the atorvastatin group was 1.7% (2.7% in the placebo group), so the absolute risk reduction was from 2.7% down to 1.7% or 1%.

To help better understand the data, we can also look at the number needed to treat (NNT). The NNT is the inverse of the absolute risk reduction. So for the ASCOT trial, the absolute risk reduction was 1%. 1 divided by 1% is 100 — 100 people would need to be treated with atorvastatin (the generic of Lipitor) over the study period to prevent one heart attack. (For more discussion on the NNT check out this blog post and this paper on its limitations)

lipitorUnderstandably, Pfizer, the makers of atorvastatin, prominently displayed the 36% relative risk reduction in their direct to consumer marketing campaigns (featuring Dr.Robert Jarvik (proclaiming himself a doctor in direct to consumer videos), although he was never a licensed physician (see here for interesting discussion on the controversy that ensued)).

Until, the FDA compels them to do otherwise, big pharma will project their products in the most favorable light possible.

However, it is debatable whether presenting data to patients using absolute risk reductions or NNT info plus relative risk reductions results in better choices. As Mcalister has pointed out:

“For example, many British patients with atrial fibrillation who were likely to benefit from anticoagulant therapy because of their risk profiles and their similarity to the participants in randomized trials supporting the efficacy of warfarin declined warfarin therapy when presented with the data about their absolute risks and benefits.”

ASCOT really makes a strong case for taking a statin drug to prevent heart attacks, even in those with normal or low cholesterol levels, not the opposite, as Brownstein has implied.

Do Statin Drugs “Weaken” The Heart Muscle Or Cause Heart Failure?

After criticizing the now infamous “Seven Nations Study” of Ancel Keys, which found high fat consumption in countries with high rates of heart attacks, Brownstein trots out the weakest imaginable argument for statins causing heart failure: heart failure has increased in the last decades, statin use has increased, therefore statins are causing heart failure. 

Correlation does not equal causation!

There is no compelling evidence that statins cause heart failure or weaken heart muscle.

In fact, a recent review of heart failure and statins concluded that statins, while not reducing mortality in heart failure, do have favorable effects on reducing the rate of hospitalization for heart failure and increasing the strength of the heart muscle.

Statins may not be as beneficial in patients with heart failure, but they definitely don’t cause heart failure.

Much of the misinformation about heart failure and statins arises from sites like Life Extension, which promotes sales of its own preferred brand of vitamin CoQ10, ubiquinol. (According to their website, though, this is for altruistic reasons: “We at the Life Extension Foundation take a different view. Keeping our members in a youthful state of longevity is the most efficient way of maintaining the revenue stream we need to fund our scientific research projects. We had no problem reducing our margins to provide members with the clearly superior ubiquinol form of CoQ10.”)

As is typical for this slick organization (see my previous post here), the writing has the veneer of science but is all pseudoscience with references that are outdated, irrelevant or meaningless.

Statin Side Effects

I’ve written about statin side effects and the decision to take them based on analysis of risks and benefits here and here.
By far, the most common thing we see is myalgia, aching of the muscles, and this is reversible.
The bottom line is that the benefits of statins far outweigh the risks if you are at very high risk for heart attack and stroke.  The risks outweigh the benefits if you are at very low risk.
For those in the middle, I advocate a search for subclinical atherosclerosis either by vascular screening or coronary calcium detection.

Misinformation and Scare Tactics on the Internet

Brownstone is not the only purveyor of dangerous misinformation on Newsmax’s Health website. There seems to be a concerted effort to promote quacks and charlatans and any information on this website is suspect.

A good rule of thumb if you are searching for credible health information on the web:

Avoid sites that use scare tactics and inflammatory rhetoric to induce you to stop your prescription medication and buy a health newsletter or nutraceutical.

By the way, Big Pharma has not brainwashed me.

I have no ties to industry.

I stopped taking any pharma food or money years ago.

Listen all y’all, it’s not a sabotage!

-Boyishly yours,

ACP

 

Dealing With The (Cardiovascular) Cards You’ve Been Dealt

The skeptical cardiologist was in Atlanta recently  visiting  his Life Coach (LCOSC). Oddly enough, the wife of the LCOSC (who I’ll call Lisa) had just undergone a coronary calcium scan  and it came back with a high score.  Most women her age (58 years old) have a zero score but hers came back at 208 .

What is the significance of a calcium score of 208 in this case?

The CT scan for calcium (discussed by me in more detail here) focuses entirely on quantifying the intense and very specific kind of x-ray absorption from calcium. The three-dimensional resolution of the scan is such that the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart can be accurately located and the amount of calcium in them very accurately and reproducibly added up. Calcium is not in the arteries normally and only accumulates as atherosclerotic plaque builds up over time. The build up of fatty plaque (atherosclerosis) is the major cause of coronary artery disease (CAD, sometimes termed coronary heart disease (CHD)) which is what causes most heart attacks and most death in both men and women in the U.S.

We can enter Lisa’s numbers into the online MESA calculator to see how she compares to other white 59 year old women. The calculator tells us that 72% of her peers have a zero calcium score and a score of 208  is higher than 95% of her peers. Although the 95th percentile is a good place to be for SAT scores it is not for atherosclerosis. This means substantial amount of fatty atherosclerotic plaque has built up in the arteries and puts the individual at significantly greater risk for heart attack and stroke. A calcium score of 100-300 confers a 7.7 times increased risk compared to an individual with similar risk factors with a zero calcium score.

Most of the risk factors that we can measure to assess one’s risk of heart attack (blood pressure, diabetes, smoking) were absent in Lisa. Her cholesterol levels had risen in the last 10 years but when I entered her numbers (total cholesterol 221, HDL 68) into the ASCVD risk estimator her 10 year risk came back at 2.5%. This is considered low and no treatment of cholesterol would be advised by the new guidelines.

The only clue that her cardiologist would have that Lisa has advanced premature atherosclerosis is that her mother had coronary heart disease at an early age, something we call premature CAD. Her mom at the age of 62 suffered a heart attack and had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries. The occurrence of significant premature CAD in a parent or sibling  substantially increases the chances that a patient will have premature CAD and the earlier it occurred in the parent or sibling the higher the risk.

Some of this excess risk is transmitted by measurable risk factors such as hypertension and hyperlipidemia and some through lifestyle factors but the majority of it is through genetic factors that we haven’t fully identified.

How much of an individual’s risk for heart attack  is determined by genetics versus lifestyle?

A large Swedish study found that adopted men and women with at least one biological parent with CHD were 1.5 times more likely to have CHD than adoptees without. In contrast, men and women with one adoptive parent were not at increased risk.

Since 2007 an intense project to identify genetic factors responsible for CAD has been underway at multiple academic centers. Thus far 50 genetic risk variants have been identified. According to Dr. Robert Roberts

” All of these risk variants are extremely common with more than half occurring in >50% of the general population. They increased only minimally the relative risk for coronary artery disease. The most striking finding is that 35 of the 50 risk variants act independently of known risk factors, indicating there are several pathways yet to be appreciated, contributing to the pathogenesis of coronary atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction. All of the genetic variants seem to act through atherosclerosis, except for the ABO blood groups, which show that A and B are associated with increased risk for myocardial infarction, mediated by a prolonged von Willebrand plasma half life leading to thrombosis”

 How well do the standard risk factors capture the individuals risk for heart attack?

The standard approach to estimating risk fails in about 25% of individuals as it does not accurately convey the high risk of the patient with family history and it overestimates risk in many elderly individuals who have an excellent family history.

It is in these patients that testing for the actual presence of atherosclerosis, either by vascular screening or coronary calcium is helpful.

Reducing The Excess Risk of Premature CAD

For many individuals there are clear-cut lifestyle changes that can be implemented once advanced CAD is identified: cigarette smoking cessation, weight loss through combinations of diet and exercise with resulting control of diabetes, However, many patients like Lisa, are non-smokers, living a good lifestyle, eating an excellent diet with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and healthy oils and  without obesity or diabetes. There is no evidence that modifying lifestyle in this group is going to slow down an already advanced progression of atherosclerosis.

Patients like Lisa have inherited predisposition to CAD, it is not due to their lifestyle.

Lisa’s cardiologist  suggested she get a copy of Dr. Esselstyn’s book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”. This book, based on the author’s experience in treating 18 patients with advanced CAD espouses an ultra low fat diet. The author declares that “you may not eat anything with a face or a mother (meat/poultry/fish)” and bans  full fat dairy products and all oil (“not even a drop”)

Such “plant-based diets” (codeword for vegan or vegetarianism) lack good scientific  studies supporting efficacy and are extremely hard to maintain long term. There is nothing to suggest that Lisa’s long term risk of heart attack and stroke would be modified by following such a Spartan dietary regimen.

Her cardiologist did recommend two things proven to be beneficial in patients with documented advanced CAD: statins and aspirin.

Taking a statin drug will arrest the atherosclerotic process and reduce risk of heart attack and stroke by around 30% as I’ve discussed here and here.

An aspirin is now indicated since significant atherosclerosis has now been documented to be present as I’ve discussed here.

We can blame a lot of heart disease on lifestyle: poor diets and lack of exercise are huge factors leading to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, but in many patients I see who develop heart disease at an early age, lifestyle is not the issue, it is the genetic cards that they have been dealt.

Until we develop reliable genetic methods for identifying those at high risk it makes sense to utilize methods such as vascular screening or coronary calcium to look for atherosclerosis in individuals with a family history of premature CAD.

Once advanced atherosclerosis is identified, we have extremely safe and effective medications that can help  individuals like Lisa deal with the cardiovascular cards they have been dealt.