The benefits and risks of cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Over the past few years, cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins have become the most widely prescribed medicines in the
world. The pills, which include Lipitor, Pravachol and Zocor, as well as less expensive generic brands, are so effective at
reducing cholesterol levels that they’ve encouraged experts to lower the official recommended numbers for LDL for those
people with the highest risk of heart disease.
Like most drugs, statins have side effects. Over time, 15 percent of people experience some problems. Most are mild, such as
headaches or fatigue. But in rare cases, statins have been associated with a serious problem called rhabdomyolysis, which
results in muscle damage and can even lead to liver failure. For that reason, doctors typically perform liver function tests
periodically for people prescribed the drugs.
On balance, though, experts say the benefits for people with elevated cholesterol far outweigh the risks. And new benefits
are being discovered all the time.
An analysis published in December 2005 showed that statins lowered the risk of heart attacks by 26 percent and of strokes by
18 percent. There’s tantalizing evidence they may also protect against Alzheimer’s disease and perhaps ward off age-related
memory loss. A few studies have even suggested that statins may lower the risk of certain cancers. No wonder some doctors
have joked that the drugs should be added to the water system.