statinsIf your doctor has or, in the future, prescribes statin drugs for you, I urge you to read further. First off, I’m not a doctor and hold no special expertise in medicine or, more specifically, the use of statins. I don’t take statins (or any pharmaceuticals) and have no chronic illnesses.  But I’ve been in the policy world for a long time and the  recent announcements regarding new guidelines for prescribing statin drugs raises some serious red flags about you should be aware.  On the plus side,  new studies show that an apple a day might be more effective than statins and new guidelines have been established for blood pressure medications that are more promising. If you are on the verge of starting a statin drug regimen, please make no mistake about this: making a decision to take statin drugs is a serious one that should be undertaken with caution because:

  • Statins have to be taken continuously; you won’t get “cured” and you likely won’t be able to get off them;
  • Statins are not cheap;
  • Statins can cause side effects, one of which is an increased risk of diabetes.
  • Statin drugs are very controversial in the medical and natural-healing worlds because there are reasonable alternatives;

Generally speaking, statin drugs reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol.  However, high LDLs are sometimes due to genetics and in such cases are not an indicator as to whether you are at risk for heart disease and stroke. Many health experts maintain that changes in lifestyle (exercise and diet) can reduce cholesterol more effectively with few, if any, side-effects.

More importantly, from a policy perspective, the statins guideline changes announced recently were crafted by a set of health professionals who are tied to the pharmaceutical industry.  They are extremely controversial because elements of these guidelines appear not to be well-supported by science. And some very knowledgeable people have raised alarms about the guidelines.  My conclusion:  the medical industry is increasingly interested in reducing costs. Treatment of stroke and heart disease is VERY expensive.   Statin drugs present a very lucrative opportunity for the industry to reduce its costs.    The economics are compelling, as noted in a number of studies.   But the economics for the patient may not be well served:  it is far cheaper to eat red yeast rice and increase exercise than to become dependent upon a fairly expensive drug.  Statin drugs cost about $100 per month — apples are about one-fifth that cost.   Apples?

Yes, apples!  Aside from exercise, a number of foods have been found to contribute to reduced blood cholesterol and blood pressure.   The most intriguing one is the daily apple.  Yes, an apple a day might not only keep the doctor away, but it may ward off strokes and heart disease.  I only wish I were making it up, but a November 2013 British medical study validated that prescribing either an apple a day or a statin a day to everyone over 50 years old is likely to have a similar effect on population vascular mortality.  The report concluded that “choosing apples rather than statins may avoid more than a thousand excess cases of myopathy and more than 12 000 excess diabetes diagnoses.”

Other alternatives to statins include sesame and rice bran oil have been staples of Asian cuisine for centuries and their use seem to correlate to the low levels of heart disease and blood pressure in those cultures.   In fact,  other heart-healthy fats — including olive oil, avocado, nut butters, fatty fish, and flaxseed — may have similar benefits.   Harvard University reports that a number of foods can reduce LDLs  and that refraining from meats; dairy and snack foods can significantly reduce LDLs.     Former President Bill Clinton — when faced with chronic heart disease — changed his diet with remarkable results.

If you understand the economic compulsion behind the industry’s embrace of statin drugs and you understand the health risks, compared to lifestyle changes, then you are in a position to better understand whether you should begin a statin regimen.   While statins do show benefits for some patients,  it is clear that not all patients benefit.   Moreover, 12-20% of patients will suffer from various muscle and organ problems.  And, perhaps most importantly, if you are 50 years old or younger and are prescribed statins,  be aware of the fact that there is no authoritative study of statins’ long-term effects.  You are playing Russian Roulette with your life if you begin a statin regimen in your early or mid-life years.

New guidelines for hypertension (blood pressure) are a bit more promising in that they suggest the reduction of hypertension medication for persons over the age of 60 if their blood pressure is under 150/90.   Random controlled trials results published in the Journal of the American Medication Assoc. revealed no data to show that older people get any benefit from further reducing their blood pressure substantially below the 150/90 benchmark.    So if you are taking diuretics, ACE inhibitors, Angiotension receptor blockers (ARB), beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers or vasodilators and your blood pressure is consistently in the 150/90 range, you may want to explore reducing or ending that medication….of course, with consultation with your physician.  This means, people taking drugs like Prinivil, Levatol, Cardizem, Procardia, Tekturna, Capoten and Norvasc may want to reassess.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t take hypertension or statin drugs.  It is inarguable that some have benefited from the drugs with little or no adverse health effects.  But the controversy over the new guidelines should make you pause and wonder whether you are better served by examining alternatives — including lifestyle changes — before jumping onto the pharma bandwagon.