In 1997, Pfizer partnered with Warner-Lambert to release the drug atorvastain calcium, or Lipitor. It quickly rose to become one of the best selling drugs in history. It’s pretty well accepted that statins cut the rate of heart attacks in half. Sounds pretty good at the surface. But when you dig deeper, this 50% number will make you a little heartsick.
The class of statin drugs has reached godly status among drugs used in America, as exemplified by the ridiculous assertion by some cardiologists that statins should be added to the water supply. I would argue that not a single doctor in favor of the use of statins actually understands a shred of statistics. You see, there is a difference between absolute risk reduction and relative risk reduction.
If I told you that 2 people in the US per year got carcinoma of the tip of the pinky finger (fictional…) and someone found a drug that, when given to the entire population of the US would cut that number down to 1 person per year. Just how many would be in line to pop this pretty little pill down their throats, especially if there was a long list of side effects? I’m thinking few of us would.
However, if you are marketing this drug, you would stand proudly in the waiting room of every doctor’s office and proclaim that this drug will reduce the rate of carcinoma of the tip of the pinky by a whopping 50%. Patients, doctors and staff alike would listen in awe, jaws lowered, at how amazing this drug would be. After all–who wants to experience carcinoma of the pinky? The line to get the prescription would remind many of us the 1979 deaths of people crushed to death while attending a Who concert..
But if that same rep stood up on the Today show and stated that this fantastic new drug would cut the absolute risk by 1% when taken by 100 people for 3 years, the yawns and disinterest would be legendary. But this is the consistent data we see with all the statins. Treat 100 patients for 3 years and you’re lucky if one less person has a heart attack. Not death. Heart attack. You can eat a walnut per day and beat this.
So, we have a class of drug that is the best selling in history and, quite frankly, it sucks at preventing a heart attack. What’s worse is that the list of side effects has gotten quite long and include:
- Potential increase in the risk of cancer
- Increased risk of chronic muscle diseases
- Problems with the functioning of the heart
- Reduction in cognitive function
- Increases the risk of your muscles melting, a condition called rhabdomyolosis
- Increases risk of long term muscle damage, even after discontinuation
- Nullifies–YES, nullifies, the positive effects of exercise on the heart
The list is actually longer. This particular study actually looked at the production of oxidative stress in the muscles of patients taking statins. Overall, the damage was enough to begin to cause the deaths of muscle cells. Not a good thing.