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Do not stop cholesterol meds based on one study

It is safer to stick to statins while experts debate reliability of new research

Bold claims that statin medications may have little positive impact on the heart health of people over 60 have stimulated lively debate among cardiovascular researchers and doctors.

A recent study published in BMJ Open medical journal and led by Dr Uffe Ravnskov of the University of Lund, Sweden, argues that high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol are not linked to higher rates of death from cardiovascular diseases in people older than 60 years of age.

“Essentially, the study argues that people over 60 with high LDL cholesterol levels do not benefit from taking statins, a commonly prescribed medication category that reduce the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol your body produces,” explains Dr Jacques Snyman, director of product development at Agility Health.

“As Agility Health, we are concerned that some members of the public may read about the claims advanced by this study and decide to stop taking their cholesterol medicines without consulting a medical professional. We would like to caution against this; conflicting studies are published all the time, and this is just a single study that has had its methodology called into question.”

The body itself produces LDL cholesterol, and statins work by inhibiting the enzyme that is involved in the formation of this dangerous type of cholesterol. “A number of studies have, indeed, implied that high cholesterol alone is not a firm predictor of heart disease. However, in combination with other risk factors – such as smoking, being overweight or a genetic predisposition to heart disease – high cholesterol levels are a cause for concern,” Dr Snyman explains.

“Excessive cholesterol in the blood tends to cause a build up of cholesterol plaque in the arteries. As a consequence, the arteries get narrower and narrower, and this residue causes the hardening of arteries. If the plaque build up ruptures, your blood’s natural repair mechanism will start to form a clot on the area and potentially cause a blockage. This could starve the heart muscle of oxygen and result in a heart attack.”

Dr Snyman adds that the blood clot may also form in the arteries of the brain, causing a stroke. “In this scenario, the clot limits or cuts off the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. This causes brain cells to die and may result in irreparable brain damage,” he notes.

“It is important to contextualise the recent Ravnskov et al research findings by stating that other peer-reviewed studies have supported the efficacy of statins in reducing heart attacks and strokes. Notably, a 2003 study by MR Law et al that was published in BMJ, found that through lowering LDL cholesterol, statins effectively reduced the incidence of cardiac events by approximately 60%, and lowered the risk of stroke by up to 17% in the long term.

“We would therefore urge those who have been prescribed statins to not react to this latest piece of research without first consulting their doctor.