Statins remain important for people at high risk of heart attack or stroke

1 March 2012

NPS is urging people taking statins to continue to take their medicine as prescribed and to see their doctor if they are unsure about the benefit of the medicine for them.

The recommendation comes in light of regulators in the US announcing that the cholesterol-lowering drugs will now carry advice about a small increased risk of diabetes and reports of memory problems.

NPS Head of Programs Ms Karen Kaye says that statins are recommended for people at high risk of cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack or stroke. The risk of developing diabetes with statins is small compared with their benefits for preventing heart attacks, strokes and deaths from such events.

Evidence shows that for every 255 people treated with a statin for four years, at least five major coronary events are avoided, while there is one extra case of diabetes.

In an analysis of statin trials involving more than 90,000 people, new diabetes cases occurred in people taking statins as well as those who didn’t. This shows that some people at risk of cardiovascular disease may develop diabetes anyway, although the number of new diabetes cases was 9% higher in those people taking statins.

“Statins lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in people at high risk of these events,” says Ms Kaye.

“This includes people who have already had a heart attack or other cardiovascular event in the past, as well as people who have a number of important risk factors for cardiovascular events, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.”

“The benefits of statins are less for people at low risk of cardiovascular events. Taking a medicine without a clear benefit is unwise, and people with few risk factors for cardiovascular disease who are taking a statin should ask their doctor about their risk of having a heart attack or stroke and their need for statin therapy.”

“Your doctor can estimate your heart and stroke risk score and tell you if the benefits of the statin outweigh the risk of side effects,” says Ms Kaye.

“Making lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking, exercising more regularly and eating more healthily is the priority for people at low risk of cardiovascular disease, and these remain important for those at higher risk.”

“Importantly, people should not stop taking statins without seeing their doctor.”

There have also been reports of memory loss and confusion with statins, but according to NPS, there is not enough evidence to be certain that statins cause these effects.

Trials with statins have not found an increased risk of memory loss or confusion with the medicines. In reports to regulatory agencies where these effects were seen, they improved once the person stopped taking the statin.

“Again, people who are concerned about the risk of memory loss with statins should see their GP,” says Ms Kaye.

An NPS study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in January 2012 found that 30% of Australians aged over 50 had taken medicines to lower cholesterol on the day the survey was taken.

MORE INFORMATION

More information about statins and the risk of diabetes and memory problems is available on the NPS website at www.nps.org.au/bemedicinewise/medicinewise_articles/statin_benefits_outweigh_diabetes_memory_risks

Information on the benefits of statins is available at

www.nps.org.au/topics/cholesterol/cholesterol_lowering_medicines_can_extend_life

ENDS

Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests.We are funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.