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Study may lead to wider use of statins; some dissent

December 13, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A landmark study has changed the way some doctors look at statins, drugs used to treat high cholesterol. And now some cardiologists are even prescribing them to patients with normal cholesterol levels. Critics wonder if it does more harm than good.

Because of a report called the JUPITER Study, many doctors are urging some people with normal cholesterol to start taking them too.

JUPITER stands for Justification for the Use of statins in Prevention: an Intervention Trial Evaluating Rosuvastatin.

JUPITER tested more than 15,000 people who had normal LDL levels and high levels of an inflammation biomarker.

"There was between a 40- and 50-percent reduction in the risk of the things we really care about, like death, stroke, heart attack," for the group taking statins, according to Dr. Steven Nissen, Cleveland Clinic Dept. of Cardiovascular Medicine.

After less than two years, the five-year study was cut short because of those findings.

Nissen says the study changed the way he practices medicine. He says before the results he and a lot of other doctors occasionally did blood tests for inflammation.

"Well, we're making that measurement more often now," said Nissen.

Doctors may use the results to prescribe statins to prevent heart disease.

But University of California-San Diego Dr. Beatrice Golomb says it's not known with longer-term use and in real-world users whether the benefits outweigh the real risks.

"Portrayed as being so fantastically safe it should be put in the water supply. In real-world use this drug causes problems not infrequently," said Golomb.

Golomb says that while some people benefit from statins, others have reported symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease. Muscle weakness, nerve damage and cognitive problems have also been issues. For people in the JUPITER Study.

"There was evidence of a significant increase in incident diabetes," for people in the JUPITER Study, according to Golomb.

Golomb wants to see more studies on the drug's long-term effects on patients with inflammation.

But Nissen still believes that in most of those cases, statins work.

"It's taken more to convince others, and I respect people who are cautious," said Nissen.

Golomb says she'd like to see other, potentially safer, anti-inflammatory agents like low-dose aspirin tested to see if the effects are similar or even better than statins.

As for people with normal cholesterol but other risk factors for heart disease, inflammation blood tests are inexpensive and available at just about every hospital.