A major review published in the Lancet journal suggests that risks associated with statins have been exaggerated.
Researchers concluded that statins do lower the risks of heart attacks and strokes by reducing cholesterol.
But critics questioned the independence of the study, the amount of medicine which it ultimately recommends taking, and criticised the fact that healthy people are being recommended to take drugs that they do not require.
About six-million people are currently taking statins in the UK, with approximately four-million prescribed the drugs due to perceived risk factors, rather than because they have already experienced a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event.
The Lancet review was led by Prof Rory Collins from the Clinical Trial Service Unit at the University of Oxford, and Collins suggested that the review, which assessed 10,000 patients over a five-year period, reflected positively on the potential benefits of statins.
“Our review shows that the numbers of people who avoid heart attacks and strokes by taking statin therapy are very much larger than the numbers who have side effects with it. In addition, whereas most of the side effects can be reversed with no residual effects by stopping the statin, the effects of a heart attack or stroke not being prevented are irreversible and can be devastating. Consequently, there is a serious cost to public health from making misleading claims about high side effect rates that inappropriately dissuade people from taking statin therapy despite the proven benefits.”
Both the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) and the British Heart Foundation have offered their support to the report.
Dr Maureen Baker, who chairs the RCGP, hoped that the study would have a positive impact on the public perception of statins.
“We hope this research reassures patients that in the majority of cases statins are safe and effective drugs – but in most cases where adverse side effects are seen, these are reversible by stopping taking statins”.
Dr June Raine, of medicines watchdog the Medicines and healthcare products Regulatory Agency, was effusive on the potential health benefits of statins.
“The benefits of statins are well established and are considered to outweigh the risk of side-effects in the majority of patients. Any new significant information on the efficacy or safety of statins will be carefully reviewed and action will be taken if required.”
However, some experts questioned the legitimacy of this study.
Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal, felt that the guidance was poorly founded considering its lack of independence.
“This still does not address the calls for a thorough, independent review of the evidence of statins. This is especially important in view of the guidance which recommends that large numbers of healthy people should take a tablet every day”.
And London cardiologist Dr Assem Malhotra concurred that the study cannot be considered independent in any meaningful sense.
“There are serious question marks about the reliability of industry-sponsored studies on the side effects of statins, and essentially that’s what this review is. And a lot of the scientists involved in the original studies were involved in this review. It is not an independent review.”