Tag Archives: Zetia

Is there a Yelp for Medications and should you be using it?

The skeptical cardiologist recently prescribed ezetimibe to a patient who was leery of taking statin drugs for her elevated cholesterol. In the past she had taken red yeast rice in the belief that this was a safe and natural way to lower her cholesterol. I told her that I had looked into and researched red yeast rice (and wrote about it here), and that it was neither safe nor effective.

When I saw her back at our next office visit, she informed me that she had done her own research. She had gone on the internet and Googled ezetimibe and based on its “reviews” she felt it was an unsafe and dangerous drug.

It occurred to me at that point that patients like Ms X may actually believe that they can get reliable information on drug side effects and efficacy by going to a website where patients leave reviews on drugs they have taken.

Yelp For Medications

Such sites would be the equivalent of Yelp, which the wife of the skeptical cardiologist utilizes extensively to determine which restaurants we should patronize.

Lo and behold, if one Googles “reviews Zetia” a whole host of websites pop up offering you the opinions of random individuals on the drug.

On Everday Health Zetia gets 2 stars from 34 reviews with the most recent review being quite negative;

I hadRated Zetia for Rheumatoid Arthritis Report BEWARE. My husband took Zetia along with stantin, Crestor. Within a week, his leg muscles inflamed and shut down his kidneys and liver. He has been in the hospital for over a month and his condition has not improved. He’s on dialysis and can not walk. He is an alcoholic and his liver failed with Zetia.

The 234 reviews of Zetia on WebMD (another site I don’t recommend) are also pretty negative. Here’s a typical one;

Low dose of Zetia ….After just first days had severe diarrhea, halfed the dose. After a month I started seeing flashes in my right eye. Lots of eye fatigue, now a lot of ‘floaters’ in my right eye. Got checked by eye doctor to make sure it wasn’t optical nerve damage. Scarey. Coincidence? Don’t think so. 

Limitations of The Yelp Concept In Assessing Medications

I empathize with and totally respect my patient’s desire to do her own independent research on the potential side effects of a drug that she will be putting in her body.

However, the Yelp approach just does not work well for medications.

There are three problems with relying on these kinds of patient-reported medication side effects.

The first is that the patients who leave comments on these sites are not representative of the overall pool of patients receiving the drug. Patients who feel they have been harmed in some significant way are much more likely to be motivated to spend the time recording what happened to them than are the individuals who felt fine after taking the drug.

There were 4 million prescriptions for ezetimibe written in 2015 and the number of patients leaving comments on these patient-review websites at most number in the hundreds. Thus, 99.9% of those taking ezetimibe are being silent, most likely because they are doing fine with the drug.

Secondly, most of the side effects reported by patients after taking ezetimibe occur at about the same frequency in those who take a placebo.

Although the package insert for ezetimibe lists various “common” side effects of the drug (such as diarrhea and upper respiratory infection), this table from the same package insert shows that such ailments are about as common in the group taking placebo.

The manufacturer, following FDA guidelines, reports out adverse reactions that are more common than 2% and numerically greater than placebo, but these are not necessarily significant differences.

Thus, we see that 4.1% of patients taking Zetia had diarrhea, but also that 3.7% of patients taking placebo had diarrhea.

If you take any group of several thousand individuals and follow them for a couple of months, probably 4% will get diarrhea whether or not they are taking ezetimibe.

The Nocebo Effect

Finally, we have to take into account the nocebo effect. The opposite of the placebo effect, in which inert substances make patients feel better, the nocebo effect makes patients who believe a drug will have side effects much more likely to experience those side effects.

The nocebo effect is quite common in patients who have read very negative comments on the internet about statin side effects. It is clear to me that this statin-related nocebo effect has also influenced patients taking non-statin cholesterol lowering medications like ezetimibe.

This is such an important factor in how patient’s tolerate ezetimibe that I spend considerable time during office visits emphasizing that ezetimibe works in a totally different way than statins, and is not associated with muscle aches/myalgias.

Alas, my patient has chosen to rely on the Yelp approach to deciding which medications to take. I’ve given her the best information I could on the safety and efficacy of ezetimibe based on my years of prescribing it and studying it. At this point it is her decision to make, and I accept it and we move forward managing her cardiovascular disease with the other tools in my toolkit.

Unlike an inaccurate restaurant review, however, a single individual describing inaccurately horrific side effects of a medication has the potential to steer thousands of patients away from potentially life-saving therapy.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

Ezetimibe (Zetia) Shown to Reduce Heart Attack and Stroke After Thirty Billion Dollars in Sales

Important findings from the IMPROVE-IT trial were presented at the American Heart Association meeting yesterday. They demonstrate for the first time that the cholesterol lowering drug ezetimibe (brand name Zetia) lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke when added to a statin drug in high risk patients (those who have sustained a heart attack or had unstable angina) over a statin drug plus placebo.

That study showed

 The primary endpoint of CV death/MI/UA/coronary revascularization beyond 30 days/stroke was significantly lower in the ezetimibe/simvastatin arm compared with the simvastatin arm over the duration of follow-up (32.7% vs. 34.7%, hazard ratio [HR] 0.94, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.89-0.99; p = 0.016).

Prior to this study, Zetia had been prescribed to millions of patients since 2002 garnering Merck, its maker, profits of 30 billion dollars despite there being no evidence that it reduced heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Melissa Walton-Shirley wrote an excellent article on the status of Zetia at the beginning of 2014, summarizing thusly:

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that starting in 2014, let’s not put compounds on the market for human ingestion without knowing if they help or hurt. Let’s make it unacceptable for a company to make tens of billion dollars from the sale of a compound without knowing if it lowers mortality or improves quality of life

I have previously bashed Zetia on this site and I only prescribe it in very rare cases. These new data may change my approach.

Before embracing Zetia, though, I want to see the full paper in published form and examine the data in detail. Many questions need to be answered. For example, the addition of the drug to simvastatin lowered heart attack and stroke compared to simvastatin alone but there was no difference in overall death rates or cardiovascular death rates. That raises a red flag.

In addition, this study does not support the use of Zetia in patients who have not had heart attacks or near heart attacks (primary prevention).

Science moves slowly but inexorably toward the truth if done properly. It’s important that public policy and drug prescribing not get in front of the science as it did with this drug.

 

Saving Lives and Improving the Quality of Life by Deprescribing

Every time I see a patient in my office I review in detail the medications the patient is taking. My office staff and I obsessively work on making sure the list I have in my electronic medical record  matches exactly what the patient is taking.

As I review the medications I am asking  myself the following questions:

Does the patient need this medication?

Is he/she having side effects from the medications?

Is this the right dosage?

Are there any interactions between the medications that are important?

Is there a cheaper or safer alternative?

For many patients, I will reduce or stop what I consider to be unnecessary medications. Often this results in the patient feeling better, sometimes this is live-saving.

Dr. John Mandrola (electrophysiologist and former colleague of mine in my former cardiology practice in Louisville, KY) writes an excellent blog  at DrJohnM.org and has recently encouraged us all to ponder deprescribing, a verb that describes the process of stopping potentially inappropriate medications.

I encourage you to read his post (here) on deprescribing and his other informative posts on topics related to reducing inflammation in our lives, atrial fibrillation and cycling .

Since putting this post together, I saw a patient in my office whose mother would greatly benefit from deprescribing. My patient and I had in previous visits mutually decided that he did not need to be on a statin drug as he had had myalgia side effects from Lipitor and when we looked at his carotid artery it was not abnormally thickened and had no plaque. He asked me if his 95 year old mother (who is not my patient) should be taking Welchol and Zetia.

Zetia is a very expensive, brand name cholesterol lowering drug that has never been shown to improve cardiovascular outcomes despite effectively lowering the LDL or bad cholesterol. I never prescribe it.

Welchol is an expensive, brand name cholesterol lowering drug which has I only use in patients who have markedly elevated LDL cholesterol levels and evidence of marked atherosclerosis. It commonly causes constipation. I rarely prescribe it.

The data for treating cholesterol in patients over age 75 is lacking and by the time patients reach age 95 the risks of these drugs likely outweigh any benefits.

I think my patient’s 95 year old mother would  greatly benefit from a healthy dose of deprescribing!

 

 

 

Statin Drugs Have Benefits Beyond Cholesterol Lowering

For most of the last 25 years I have told patients when I recommend  a statin drug to them that they should take it in order to lower their bad cholesterol (and raise the good cholesterol) thereby lowering their risk of future heart attacks.

I based this statement on my understanding of large statin trials which demonstrated reduction in heart attacks seemingly closely tied to drops in the bad cholesterol level.

Although I was aware of the so-called “pleiotropic” (meaning effecting multiple pathways leading to atherosclerosis) of statins it was easier to point to the cholesterol lowering effects and unify that message with the recommendation to reduce fat and cholesterol in the diet , thereby lowering cholesterol in the blood and arteries and cut heart attack risks.

Thus emerged a very simple (and likely false) paradigm: Fat in the diet causes fat in the blood which causes fat in the arteries which causes fatty plaques in the coronary arteries which causes heart attacks when they get too big and block off the blood flow.

I, like most cardiologists and lay people  mistakenly assumed that since lower bad cholesterol levels associated with taking a statin drug were associated with lower heart attack risks then dietary changes aimed at lowering bad cholesterol levels would also lower heart attack risk.

It turns out that we don’t really know how the statins reduce heart attacks . As a recent review points out:

 some of the cholesterol-independent or “pleiotropic” effects of statins involve improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response. Furthermore, statins have beneficial extrahepatic effects on the immune system, CNS, and bone. Many of these pleiotropic effects are mediated by inhibition of isoprenoids, which serve as lipid attachments for intracellular signaling molecules. In particular, inhibition of small GTP-binding proteins, Rho, Ras, and Rac, whose proper membrane localization and function are dependent on isoprenylation, may play an important role in mediating the pleiotropic effects of statins.

Supporting the non cholesterol lowering effects of statins on reducing CVD are the following observations

-Most heart attack victims don’t have elevated bad cholesterol levels and dietary reduction of bad cholesterol doesn’t seem very effective at preventing heart attacks.

-Drugs, like Zetia or ezetimibe which lower cholesterol level by other mechanisms don’t seem to prevent atherosclerosis even though they substantially lower bad cholesterol levels.

-Statin drugs reduce heart attacks in patients who have normal or low bad cholesterol levels

What Causes Atherosclerosis?

An article (Innate and adaptive inflammation as a Therapeutic Target in Vascular Disease) published in JACC recently by Tousoulis,et al. summarizes the current understanding of how atherosclerosis develops and the multiple ways that statins may affect that process. They write

Atherosclerosis, once thought to be a lipid storage disease, is now considered a chronic low-grade inflammatory condition that affects the vascular wall. It is characterized by the deposition of cholesterol and lipids followed by infiltration of T cells and macrophages, all as a result of an endothelial injury response.

I’m including this figure from the article to give you some idea of how incredibly complicated the process is.

atherosclerosis
Overview of Mechanisms Involved in Atherosclerosis Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is oxidized in the presence of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and binds to proteoglycans (heparin sulfate) while simultaneously stimulating the endothelium, leading to adhesion molecule overexpression and increasing its permeability. Apart from this action, oxidized low-density lipoprotein (ox-LDL) inhibits nitric oxide (NO) production, prohibiting vasodilation. Furthermore, cytokines and other chemoattractant molecules, such as MCP-1, are secreted, favoring leukocyte adhesion. Leukocytes come into random contact with the activated endothelium and, due to interactions with adhesion molecules, roll and tether and are subsequently firmly arrested. In addition, leukocytes transmigrate into the subendothelial space, where they differentiate into macrophages, which in turn take up ox-LDL, forming foam cells. Ox-LDL antigens are presented by macrophage major histocompatibility complex class II (MHC-II) proteins and are recognized by CD4+ T cells. These preferentially differentiate into Th-1 cells, pro-inflammatory cytokine production. Finally, smooth muscle cell (SMC) proliferation and migration are induced as a result of cytokine and growth factor secretion.

Can you imagine trying to explain this to the average patient?

My eyes glazed over once I reached MCP-1.

Thus, doctors end up giving the simple, accepted conventional wisdom that we are “treating” high cholesterol by giving statin drugs. What we are really treating is atherosclerosis. And statins are the only effective drug treatment we have identified for this ubiqitous  and complex process.

It is entirely possible that the lower LDL cholesterol caused by statin drugs is totally unrelated to their ability to forestall atherosclerosis. The new cholesterol guidelines reflect this concept as they don’t recommend treating to an LDL target level.

I end with the closing comments from the article by Tousoulis, et al.

Given the fact that atherosclerosis is a multivariable disease, with several molecules involved in each stage, it is vey difficult to find an effective treatment. However, statins prove to be the most effective treatment so far because they interfere with most of the critical components of the atherosclerotic process and have been proven to have beneficial effects. Further to their well-established impact on nonspecific low-grade inflammation, statins also appear to have significant effects on innate and adaptive immunity that have been underestimated so far.

Should I Take A Statin Drug? Risks, Benefits and the New Guidelines

StatinsThe skeptical cardiologist just returned from Washington, DC where he attended the American College of Cardiology (ACC) annual conference and visited Ford’s Theatre. I was hoping to gather more information on diet and cardiovascular disease but most of the discussions on prevention of heart disease centered around the new ACC/AHA guidelines for treating cholesterol.

A recently published analysis of the impact of these guidelines found that

As compared with the ATP-III guidelines, the new guidelines would increase the number of U.S. adults receiving or eligible for statin therapy from 43.2 million (37.5%) to 56.0 million (48.6%). Most of this increase in numbers (10.4 million of 12.8 million) would occur among adults without cardiovascular disease.

If you are a man over the age of 59 (which I just became), even without any cardiovascular disease or diabetes, there is an 87% chance the guidelines would suggest you take a statin drug.

This is a startling increase and consequently there has been a lot of criticism and questioning of the validity of these recommendations.

More importantly, for an individual patient, should you take a statin drug if your doctor recommends it? This is an especially good question if you have no evidence of any atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (so-called primary prevention). At a minimum, you should have a very detailed discussion with your doctor about the risk and benefits of taking the medication in your particular situation.

What are statin drugs?

Statins are the most powerful, safe and effective drugs available for lowering LDL or bad cholesterol levels. They inhibit 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase, involved in cholesterol biosynthesis. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentration is lowered by reducing its production in the liver and increasing removal from the circulation. Statins also have anti-inflammatory effects, improve endothelial function, and reduce thrombus formation.

Common examples of statin drugs are Lipitor which is now available as a generic called Atorvastatin , Pravastatin, and Crestor (Rosuvastatin), which is only available in brand name form.

What are the risks of statin drugs?

When large scale randomized trials of statin drug therapy are analyzed, rates of adverse events (17%) or stopping treatment due to adverse events (12%) are similar in the statin compared to placebo/control groups.

The incidence of cancers, liver enzyme elevations, kidney dysfunction or arthritis was the same in the two groups.

There are only two side effects from taking statins I consider significant and mention to my patients:
1. There does appear to be a 9% increase in the risk of developing diabetes. Most of the patients who develop diabetes on statins were at high risk for this to begin with and the overall benefits of lowering CV disease outweighs the development of diabetes in patients who take statins.
2. Statins definitely can cause muscle aches (myalgias) and this seems to happen in about 10% of patients over time. If these develop, we stop the statin and the myalgias go away if they are due to the drug. There are no reliable studies showing any long term residual muscle weakness or ache. A very, very small number of patients develop rhabdomyolysis, in which there is severe muscle damage. These patients are almost always taking multiple medications which interact with the statins and often have kidney failure to begin with.

Some things you don’t need to be concerned with while on statins:

1. That the drug will give you Alzheimer’s or make you stupid. There is much anecdotal misinformation on the web about this, but no solid evidence of any adverse effect on cognition.
2. That the drug will destroy your liver. A small percentage of patients will develop elevations of their liver enzymes (AST or ALT) but this does not lead to liver damage and is considered so insignificant now that the FDA now longer advises checking liver enzymes in patients on statin drugs.

What are the benefits of statins in people without known heart disease?

They lower all-cause mortality by 14%, combined fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular disease by 25%, and stroke by 22%. They lower the chances that you would need a stent or bypass surgery by 38%.
Another way of looking at the benefits of a treatment is the number needed to treat (NNT).
To save one life, you would need to treat 138 patients for 5 years with statin drugs. This means that 137 patients would have done fine without taking the drug.

The higher your risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease  (ASCVD (all the disease that occurs as a result of fatty plaque build up in the body, including heart attack and stroke)), the more likely you will benefit from taking a statin drug.
Thus, the new guidelines utilize a risk estimator that takes into account your total and good cholesterol values, your systolic blood pressure, age and whether you smoke, have diabetes or treated hypertension to calculate your risk of developing clinical ASCVD over the next ten years.

If this ten year risk is over 7.5%, statin therapy should be considered.

I’ve looked over the guidelines carefully, read a lot of the original studies and listened to the discussion and I think this is a reasonable approach. I try to present each patient with the risks and benefits and let them make the decision as to whether they want to take the drug.
Each individual has a different perspective, perhaps heavily influenced by their father having died of a heart attack in his fifties or by a close friend who feels that statins ruined his life.

Two important new concepts from the new guidelines

The new guidelines no longer look at the LDL or bad cholesterol level as a goal or as a level for initiating treatment (unless it is super high, above 190). Thus, the only reason to be checking follow up cholesterol panels on patients who are taking good levels of statin drugs is to verify compliance and an effective reduction in LDL from baseline. I will not try to get your LDL below 100 or 70 and you will not have to worry that it is not at that level.

The new guidelines rightly emphasize statin drugs as the only drug therapy that has good outcomes data (meaning they have been show to reduce heart attacks and strokes) supporting their use in primary prevention.
Ezitimibe (Zetia) is a commonly prescribed drug which lowers LDL cholesterol but is expensive and has never been shown to lower heart attack or stroke risk and, in my opinion, should not be prescribed.

Our goal should be prevention of heart disease, not lowering LDL levels or triglyceride levels.

I believe that we can fine tune which patients will and will not benefit from statin therapy by looking for evidence of what is called “subclinical atherosclerosis.” I plan to review this in a future post.
For now, I leave you with the humorous line from the play “Our American Cousin” that caused the distracting laughter during which John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre (which is not far from the Washington Convention Center and well worth visiting!)

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

Tell your cardiologist you will sockdologize him if he doesn’t give you a good discussion of the risks and benefits of the statin drug he is recommending.