Do cholesterol drugs really prevent heart attacks?

Statin drugs, such as Lipitor, are prescribed to reduce cholesterol levels in patients.  Statins have been on the market since the late 1980’s. Lipitor, one of the most popular statins, generated Pfizor a whopping 2.1 billion dollars of revenue in 2018, with a high of 13 billion dollars of revenue in 2006!

Statins are successful at dropping your blood cholesterol, but does that really reduce your risk of heart attack?  According to Lipitor ads, it reduces the risk of heart attacks by 36%. However, this number is quite misleading. In a large clinical study that lasted for 3 ½ years, 3% of patients had a heart attack when taking a placebo pill.  Patients taking Lipitor saw a 2% heart attack rate.

Based on these numbers in the clinical trial, there was a 36% reduction, but what that really means is for every 100 people, 3 people taking a placebo had a heart attack; whereas 2 people had a heart attack on Lipitor.  That means just 1 fewer person out of a 100 didn’t have a heart attack while taking the statin drug!

Another common measurement used in clinical studies is “number needed to treat” or NNT.  NNT measures how many people need to take the drug in order for 1 person to benefit. In the case of Lipitor, the number needed to treat for ONE person to benefit is 100 people!!!

Studies have shown that this number may be even exaggerated because this study is based on people that have numerous risk factors including high blood pressure or smoking.  So, what about people that don’t have these high risk factors? The NNT for those without any risk factors is estimated to upwards of 500, meaning 500 people need to take the statin for just 1 person to benefit!

Another overlooked risk with drugs are the health risks in taking them.  An estimated 10% to 15% of patients taking statin experience side effects.  Side effects of Lipitor can include muscle pain and weakness, confusion or memory problems, digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhea, and fatigue.

For more information on these studies, check out the following article by John Carey:

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