The number of people continuing to suffer from heart disease and stroke rises each year, despite advancements in pharmaceutical intervention. Unfortunately, the misguided recommendation to eat a low-fat diet is only making matters worse. Cardiovascular disease was listed as the underlying cause of death in 33 percent of all deaths in the U.S.1 and remains the No. 1 cause of death.
Someone has a stroke every 40 seconds and a stroke kills someone every four minutes. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), seven factors are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, including smoking, inactivity, diet, high cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.2 While some of these factors are straightforward, such as smoking or not smoking, others are more complicated than a simple measurement.
Like saturated fat, cholesterol has been vilified despite 60 years’ worth of research having failed to demonstrate a correlation between high total cholesterol and heart disease. Cholesterol is actually one of the more important molecules your body uses to build cells and produce hormones and vitamin D. Low levels of cholesterol that may occur with pharmaceutical intervention are linked to memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease,3 and may increase your risk of depression,4 stroke and violent behavior.
Cholesterol is often divided into HDL/”good” and LDL/”bad” cholesterol, but the division is really based on how the molecule combines with protein. LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, or fat molecules combined with protein. Fat must be transported in your blood with a protein, which is classified by density. Large LDL molecules are actually not harmful, but small dense LDL particles may squeeze out of the lining of your arteries and trigger damage and inflammation.
Some groups, such as the National Lipid Association, are now starting to shift the focus toward the size of the LDL particle instead of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, in order to better assess your risk of heart disease. While a potentially more accurate method of assessing risk, the process has not yet been embraced by the mainstream, and requires more complex blood testing than currently done for cholesterol levels.5
New Study Defends Statin Drug Use
A recent study released in the Annals of Internal Medicine6 triggered a flurry of media attention when it recommended patients continue — or start — taking statin drugs.7 According to Cleveland Clinic chairman of cardiovascular medicine, Dr. Steven Nissen, holistic practitioners are hyping side effects associated with statin drugs and have concocted unfounded assertions against the medication.
However, many studies have shown statins fail to live up to the promises of lowering your cardiovascular disease risk. In fact, this class of drug may actually raise your risk.
The study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that sparked this attention evaluated 28,266 people who reported an adverse event or reaction to taking the statin drug.8 Of those who had already experienced an adverse reaction, 70.7 percent continued their medication. After four years, the researchers found those who continued the drug had a 12.2 percent rate of cardiovascular events. Those who discontinued the medication had a 13.9 percent rate of adverse cardiovascular events.
In other words, those who continued taking the drug after suffering some form of adverse effect experienced a mere 1.7 percent reduced rate of cardiovascular problems over four years. In an editorial in the same publication, Nissen laid a substantial portion of the blame for stopping statin drugs on the doorstep of dietary supplements, lifestyle-based approaches and benefits from these that have not been confirmed in formal clinical studies.9
Statin Benefits Are Weak at Best
Interestingly, the AHA places a strong emphasis on lifestyle-based approaches that include quitting smoking, getting exercise, normalizing weight, reducing blood pressure and reducing blood sugar.10 In other words, while Nissen is not convinced lifestyle-based approaches are very helpful, the AHA doesn’t appear to agree.
Moreover, the potential benefit of statins must also be weighed against its drawbacks, and many cardiologists and even professional organizations have warned that statins seem to do more harm than good.11
According to an analysis from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force,12 to prevent a single person from dying of any cause, 250 people would need to take statin medications for six years; 100 people need to take a statin as a primary preventive for five years in order for one or two people to avoid a heart attack, but none will actually live longer.13 Other studies have also failed to find any kind of mortality benefit from statin medications, even in at-risk groups.14
Unfortunately, statin medications are not just recommended for individuals who have had a cardiovascular event in the past and considered at high risk. They’re now recommended to any person who has a 7.5 percent risk of having a heart attack in the following 10 years, based on a risk profile created by the AHA, which takes into account gender/age/race, cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and smoking.
Using this calculator, an amazing 26.4 million Americans become candidates for statin treatment.15 However, as discussed in previous articles,16,17 researchers have warned the AHA’s risk calculator overestimates your heart disease risk by anywhere from 75 to 150 percent. This means even healthy people at low risk for heart problems are being put on these risky drugs.