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Study: Cholesterol-lowering statins safe for women

January 30, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Statins are extremely popular medications doctors prescribe to lower cholesterol. But some experts believe cardiologists aren't routinely prescribing them to women. Are statins as effective for women as they are for men?

One of the reasons many doctors don't prescribe cholesterol-lowering statins to women is the lack of data. Not enough studies show that statins are effective. Now a new report in the Journal of American College of Cardiology provides some proof, but is it enough to convince women and doctors?

To reduce the risk factors that lead to heart attacks, people have to exercise, eat right, not smoke and get eight hours of sleep. The problem, experts say, is less than 20 percent of Americans actually do that.

If you had a family history of heart disease, but you were otherwise healthy, would you take a cholesterol-lowering drug to reduce your risk of heart disease?

It's a question many more doctors might be asking healthy people at risk for heart disease.

A new review of 140,000 people finds cholesterol-lowering statins decreased the risk of heart disease, stroke and death similarly in men and women.

In this study, authors look specifically at women who did not have heart disease to begin with and they found that statins did indeed decrease their risk for death.

"Women should be thinking about whether or not they should be on this pill. And they should be asking their healthcare provider, who will then look at their risk and make some decisions," said Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Not everyone agrees with the director of Cedars-Sinai's Women's Heart Center. Historically, doctors have regarded women as lower risk than men. A 2009 Heart journal study found even if women did exhibit heart disease symptoms, women were less likely than men to receive statins.

Dr. Bairey Merz says heart disease kills more women than men and gender should no longer be an issue when prescribing treatment.

"Heart disease strikes half of the time with a mortality. No warning. Dead. So if we don't embrace these preventive practices, we miss that opportunity to prevent half of the deaths," said Dr. Bairey Merz.

Some doctors are also reluctant to prescribe statins to otherwise healthy people because of side effects such as muscle aches.

Researchers say it's not clear if side effects affect women and men differently because the studies did not record the gender of the patients experiencing them.