New Research Suggests that Treating More Adults with Statins Could Help Save Lives

While the percentage of Americans that take statins has increased in recent years, controversy has swirled about their use. According to the CDC, 26% of all adults over age 40 took statins as of 2012. There is no question that these drugs lower cholesterol levels, but they can have side effects such as memory loss, muscle damage, and type 2 diabetes.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology released new guidelines in 2013 that suggested increasing the percentage of people who take statins to help prevent heart disease or stroke. Critics responded that healthy adults would be over treated and that the risks for these conditions had been overestimated.

New research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that it would be cost-effective to treat 48-67% of adults aged 40-75 with statins. The researchers predict that doing so could prevent an additional 161,450 cardiovascular-related events and thus help to save lives.

Ankur Pandya and his co-authors performed a cost-effectiveness analysis of the new guidelines for statins by using a measure that assesses the burden of a disease based on the quality and quantity of life. Public health experts commonly use the quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) measure to assess the benefits of particular medical treatments.

The current guidelines recommend treating people with statins if they have a 7.5% or higher risk of stroke or heart attack over a 10-year period. The researchers determined that using a treatment threshold of risk of 3-4% or less would prevent an estimated 125,000-160,000 cardiovascular-related events.

Patients need to take their medication daily to get optimal effects, so the decision of whether or not to take such drugs should be made jointly by the patients and their physicians.