The statins wars: Another round and maybe some clarity

Don’t prescribe statins to any more people. That’s the clear message from a strongly worded open letter to the head of NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) and to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt published today. If you groan at the prospect of yet more confusion over statins, this post might bring a bit of clarity. Please read on.

It’s the latest volley in long running battle about whether cholesterol lowering statins are a good way of cutting the risk of heart attack and death in virtually the entire population with vanishingly small number of effects or whether they don’t actually benefit most people and are quite likely to cause side effects that range from the unpleasant to the deadly.

The letter urges NICE to ‘withdraw the current guidance on statins for people at low risk of cardiovascular disease until all the data are made available.’ This is because, say the authors: ‘We are concerned that financial conflicts of interest and major commercial bias may have corrupted the database on statins.’

Among the independent statin experts and senior medical figures who have signed the letter are the President of the Royal College of Physicians, a Past Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a professor of Emergency medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine New York.

Who can make sense of all this?

Now all of this presents an ongoing problem for anyone who wants to be responsible for their health. Who apart from a few health geeks has the time or inclination to follow the twists and turns of this saga? Especially when it is challenging medical orthodoxy supported by even more experts? All you want to know is: Worth it or not?

As an aside, this debate suggests there are serious problems with our current model of evidence based medicine, which was supposedly designed to answer precisely this question about any sort of treatment. However its total failure, after 20 years and the expenditure of literally billions of dollars on trials, to provide a clear conclusion about statins, suggests that a major rethink is overdue.

I can’t offer an impartial answer I signed up to the doubter’s camp about ten years ago after quite a lot of reading. However I do believe that the article below by Professor David H. Newman of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and one of the signatories on the today’s letter will at least make the debate swirling around the BMJ a bit clearer .This was first published in the Huffington Post and used with permission of the author.

After ten years and several articles and posts on the topic I found it explained a couple of points I was puzzled about. For anyone keen to catch up on what has been happening at the BMJ.

Introduction by Jerome Burne

Assault on Science

By Professor David H. Newman

Will it help me live longer? When patients ponder the lifetime commitment to a statin drug, this is the question they ask. But a very public controversy in the scientific community has recently diverted attention from this central question — and that just might be on purpose.

In the October issue of the British Medical Journal, the rare scientific journal that routinely questions convention, a group led by Dr. John Abramson, a teacher of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School, reanalyzed the largest-ever research report on the statin drugs. Abramson’s group found evidence that for all but the very highest-risk people, statins did not save lives and did not reduce the frequency of serious illness.

This was surprising not just because it challenged convention but because it contradicted the conclusions of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists (CTT) collaboration, a group granted exclusive access to report on raw data compiled by the drug manufacturers (who still harbor most of the data). In their highly touted 2012 report the CTT group concluded that the pills could extend life for everyone who took them, including healthy people at low risk of heart problems. This finding was prominently cited by the American Heart Association in their recent guideline recommending statin use for patients at low risk.

Why do the Abramson and CTT groups disagree about the same data? When the CTT group, led by Dr. Rory Collins, an epidemiologist at Oxford, reported the numbers, they failed to separate people according to risk level. So when they reported that statins reduce deaths, they did so based on a calculation including both the highest- and lowest-risk participants. When the Abramson group examined death rates, they looked at the low-risk patients separately, and the mortality benefits disappeared; for these patients, taking statins was the same as taking a placebo.

This is undisputed. Neither Dr. Collins nor the CTT group nor the AHA has challenged the finding, which suggests universal agreement that for the great majority (80 percent or more) of people currently on a statin, and for all those newly recommended, the drugs don’t save lives and don’t reduce serious illness.

The shocker, however, is that this is not the “controversy.” Dr. Abramson and colleagues also reported that in the largest study of statin adverse effects, nearly 18 percent of patients had side effects and stopped the drug. Dr. Collins disagrees, saying that only 9 percent stopped the drug because of these side effects.

That’s it. Seriously. And Abramson’s group agrees (while 18 percent of patients had experienced side effects, only half of those had stopped taking the drug; Abramson’s group read the study incorrectly), so the BMJ has already corrected the error.

But Dr. Collins is still wailing — perhaps to drown out something else. It does create quite a noise, after all, when medical recommendations affecting hundreds of millions of people are found to be incontrovertibly wrong.

Dr. Collins is calling for a retraction of the Abramson paper, an action typically reserved for studies in which the primary finding is both fraudulent and wrong (such as the one scientific paper linking autism and the measles vaccine). Retraction of a scientific paper is never used when the central finding is accurate and a minor error is discovered in a secondary point.

There are many reasons that Dr. Collins’ statements on this issue are surreal. They seem to have left science behind, or worse. For instance, Collins seems to believe that randomized trial data like the data that his group has exclusive access to, as opposed to observational studies like the one Dr. Abramson cited, should be used to estimate side-effect rates. The Food and Drug Administration, and most others, disagree.

It often takes years of post-marketing surveillance (i.e., observational) studies and case reports for dangerous side effects to emerge, which trials typically miss. This is partly because trials are usually focused on benefits, not harms. This is most obvious when drug companies, who have a financial stake in finding benefits rather than harms, pay for the trial — like virtually all the CTT data.

A classic example of why trial data should never be used to estimate side effects is a statin trial for which Dr. Collins himself was a lead investigator. In the Heart Protection Study of 2002, Collins’ team systematically removed patients who suffered significant side effects, never reporting on them in the final numbers. Despite identifying 32,000 patients who seemed right for statin drugs, they dumped 12,000 of them when they had difficulty tolerating or taking a statin. The final paper reported on only 20,000 people. In other words, those with significant side effects were weeded out before the trial started.

This is a dubious practice, defended as a way of identifying patients who will benefit most. And while this may be true, the practice clarifies why data from randomized trials are often irrelevant to people concerned about their chance of experiencing side effects.

To be sure, it may be reasonable to worry less about side effects for patients who could live longer if they take a statin. After all, fatal side effects are rare, and living longer is paramount to most patients. But side effects become critical when a statin won’t extend life, and when the benefits are less common or less important than the side effects.

But when low-risk people take a statin, the chance that the drug will cause diabetes is roughly equal (at best) to the chance that it will prevent a nonfatal heart attack. And a person taking a statin is 25 times more likely to experience muscle damage than they are to avoid a stroke.

Bottom line: The headline should be that the bestselling pills of all time don’t save lives or reduce major illness for most who take them. But that has been obscured by a war on science.

The war includes many assaults: performing trials that weed out side effects, claiming they should be used to counsel patients, maintaining secret databases, and, worst of all, trash-targeting a journal for publishing a discovery that brings truth to millions.

Article originally published in the Huffington Post on 3 June 2014; reproduced here with the permission of the author. [Permalink]

Professor David H. Newman

Professor David H. Newman

Professor David Newman is an emergency room physician and director of clinical research at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. His latest book ‘Hippocrates' Shadow: What Doctors Don't Know, Don't Tell You, And How Truth Can Repair the Patient-Doctor Breach’ argues that medicine focuses narrowly on the rewards of technology and science, exaggerating their benefits and ignoring or minimizing their perils. Editor-in-Chief | Editor-in-Chief
Professor David H. Newman

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  • I have seen it suggested that statins may also cause muscle damage to the heart – causing heart failure. Is this true, because if so, it might be the final piece of evidence against statins.

    • I put that point to my GP some years ago when he was trying to persuade me to take statins. He pooh-poohed it, but advanced neither argument or data. I was unpersuaded.

  • Has anyone suffered acing joints. My mum has days when her feet ache so much she can’t walk and has found reducing dose has helped.

    • Nancy,
      It has been some time since you posted your question about whether statins cause side effects. In point of fact…I believe any of the medicines that lower cholesterol (especially for those whose cholesterol levels are normal), can and do cause serious harm. Mine started with a blue toe. One doctor said I had a blockage. My GP wanted to rule out auto-immune. He did. They put me on Plavix and Antara along with a BP medicine (I had never had high blood pressure in my entire life) as a precaution. I began immediately to suffer severe leg pain 24/7. I underwent a CT scan. It showed a 60% blockage of the abdominal aorta. However, in two months time, my pain worsened, my legs were so heavy I could barely walk, and an angiogram was done. By then, I had a 98% blockage of the abdominal aorta. It was stented. When I awakened, I had such terrible back pain (I had NEVER BEFORE EXPERIENCED), I cried. When I arose, I could walk with no heaviness. However, the pain persisted unabated and terrible. I complained. My doctor changed my medicine to Simvastatin. Although my cholesterol went from 216 to 121, I felt worse than ever. I finally ditched the statins. It has taken well over 1.5 years to feel better. I believe these drugs actually can bring on arterial damage or make it worse at the very least. I have no heart issues, no other arterial issues, and am living a normal life. You tell me. I truly felt poisoned and maimed by them. Altogether, I was on these medications for 10 years for fear that this was my only hope in avoiding vascular problems. I was scared and I just did not know why. Now, I do thanks to the independent thinkers and those who opened my eyes to the cloak and dagger tactics of the pharmaceutical industry and its cronies.

  • Nancy,

    I would suggest that you go to Malcolm Kendrick’s blog, where a lot of statin sufferers have reported their experiences:

    To answer your question from personal experience, my experience of Simvastatin was of a peculiarly shifting pain which affected both my muscles and my joints in the affected area.

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