The (tragically) curious case of statins – the miracle drug

Everybody wins with Statins.

Hello. Pleasant day to you. Statistically, you will most likely die from heart disease.

Sorry to be blunt, but cardio-vascular illness is the number one cause of worldwide deaths by far (way higher than all forms of cancer COMBINED). The bleak statistics on the devastation can be found here.

But, hey! I’m not the angel of doom. I bring good news as well. The last decade saw death from heart disease fall nearly 40%. There are a few reasons for this unmitigated good news, most importantly the widespread use of statins – drugs that lower cholesterol. A quarter of the US population take statins and recent studies suggest that a lot more people should be on this cheap, easily available miracle drug.

Underlying problems are attributed to statin side effects
Underlying problems are attributed to statin side effects

 

More good news – an average patient can get a full year’s worth of statins for a couple of hundred bucks, saving the healthcare systems untold billions in later treatment costs. This is in no small part due to contract manufacturing organizations in Asia churning out vast batches bringing economies of scale and downward pressure on price. Looks like everybody wins with statins.

Curiously, about 25% of (mostly older) patients who take statins complain of bad side-effects (mostly muscle ache, nausea, and memory issues). That’s a HUGE number. You can search the internet for “statin side effects” and come up with a gazillion pages of poorly written horror stories (I do not recommend this exercise). It is quite possible that the patients reporting side-effect are informing themselves on the internet prior to going to the doctor.

This is curious because scientists and companies have tested and re-tested statins. Double-blind, randomized controlled trials (this is where neither the giver nor the taker of the drug has any idea if what’s being given is the real thing or just a placebo) found no increased risk of any of the reported side effects.

So patient anecdotes suggest that one-in-four people that take statins will experience dangerous side-effects, whereas science suggests that it’s probably less than one in a million. This is tragic because newly patented biological statin substitutes (that doctors are forced to prescribe) cost tens of thousands of dollars a year – further destabilizing an already unsustainable healthcare system.

We thought we had a miracle drug for the world’s most potent killer and a way to make it cheaply. It would be a shame if non-science gets in the way of statins.

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