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Recent evidence has called into question the rampant use of statin medication to cardiovascular disease in women.  Two studies, both published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, are worth looking at.

First, scientists aimed to find out of use of these statins had the same protective benefit for women as it did for men.  The study revealed that for women, the benefit of the drugs was not statistically significant.  This means that when the women on statin treatment were compared to the women taking the placebo, there was no significant difference.

When statins have been used to lower cholesterol levels in women for the last twenty years, why are so few studies done to properly flesh out their effects on women?  Why are women rampantly being prescribed these drugs based on studies done on men?

While some commentators immediately dismissed the findings of this study, others acknowledged the importance of looking deeper into the issue.

Another important study also published in the Archives of Internal Medicine considered statin use and diabetes in women, and found that post-menopausal women using statins are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

In men, another study also showed an increased risk of diabetes, but much smaller at 10 – 12%.

With data such as this surfacing, women would be well-served talking to their doctors about their concerns, and consider having more regular blood sugar tests.  We hope that the FDA takes note of these new studies and considers amending its statements on the safety of statins, especially regarding diabetes.  As of now, the FDA only acknowledges a “small increased risk of raised blood sugar levels and the development of Type 2 diabetes” with statin use, but 50% of post-menopausal women is hardly a small minority.

When the effectiveness of statin use in women was called into question, we got to thinking about women and cardiovascular disease in general.  After all, we’ve all been told that the number one killer of women is heart disease, and that statin therapy is the best way to reduce the numbers.  But is this correct, or is this another case in which the data has been spun to frighten women into taking drugs and therefore creating blockbuster drugs for the pharmaceutical companies?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is the latter.  In his book Overdosed America, Dr. John Abramson compiles, studies, and reveals the truth behind many drugs, including statins.  And here are the facts he reveals:

  • While heart disease might be the number one killer of women overall, the truth is that below the age of 75, it is cancer that kills 78% more women than heart disease.
  • In men and women without heart disease or diabetes, not a single clinical trial has shown any benefit to statin therapy.
  • In the Lancet, 11,000 women without heart disease taking statins were studied, and not a single benefit of the drug was found.

Statin use became almost ubiquitous for both women and men when a panel was convened to update recommendations regarding coronary heart disease.  The full report, compiled by 14 experts, is almost 300 pages long, but the short summary is easily understood: prescribe statins across the board.

But is the actual report consistent with the recommendations laid out in the summary?  Dr. Abramson states that it is not.  While the recommendation to prescribe statins to any person with even slightly elevated cholesterol is simple enough, the science behind it is much more complicated and nuanced, and there are hardly if any benefits to such pervasive statin use.

So how does such a recommendation, allegedly based on strong science but actually misleading, come about?  In Dr. Abramson’s own words, “Unfortunately, in American medicine [that] expertise is now virtually inseparable from financial ties to industry.”  In other words, the drug companies have provided such strong incentives to the experts, that the experts will figure out a way to contort the data to benefit the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Abramson quotes Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health: “Drug Companies are extremely powerful.  They put huge efforts into promoting the benefits of these drugs.  It’s easier for everyone to go in this direction.  There’s no huge industry promoting smoking cessation or healthy food.”

Dr. Abramson points out that the research shows that these very simple behavior changes—healthier eating, incorporating more exercise into one’s lifestyle—have been proven time and time again to be more effective in most people than statin use.  His conclusion is this: “The ultimate impact of the 2001 cholesterol guidelines is this: competent and caring physicians trying to provide the best possible care for their patients are being misled—and are misleading their patients.”