Should most people over the age of 50 be taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug? A UK health agency thinks so, and is about to relax the guidelines-but the recommendation is based on industry-sponsored research and from experts who have close ties to the drugs industry, say some leading academics. And a new study reveals that people become even less active once they start taking a statin, which increases their risk of heart disease.
The UK's National Institute for Healthcare and Excellence (NICE) is expected to relax the guidelines for statin use, so that more over-50s routinely take a statin as a 'just-in-case' remedy against heart disease. Statin prescriptions in the UK are expected to rise from the current seven million to 12 million as a result.
But the recommendation, which doctors are expected to follow, is based on industry-sponsored research that has over-emphasised the benefits while under-playing the drug's side effects, say leading academics and clinicians, including Sir Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians.
Eight of the 12 members of the panel that has drawn up the recommendations to NICE have had direct financial ties to the drugs companies that make statins.
In a letter to health secretary Jeremy Hunt, Thompson and eight other leading clinicians say the recommendation should be shelved until proper independent research is carried out into the safety of statins. Side effects include diabetes, depression, fatigue and muscle weakness. The new guidelines would also result in "the medicalization of five million healthy individuals".
A major new study supports their concerns. Older men become less active once they start taking statins, say researchers from Oregon State University. Looking at the lifestyles of 3,071 men aged from 65 years, the researchers found that those taking a statin did around 40 minutes less moderate physical activity every week than those not taking the drug.
As the men led fairly sedentary lives anyway, this reduction was significant, and could increase the risk of heart disease and heart failure, the very things the statins are supposed to prevent.
The researchers think the men suffer muscle weakness-one of the most common side effects of the drugs-which prevents them from carrying out any physical activity.
(Sources: Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014; JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014; doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.2266)