Statins should be doled out for life, a study suggests.
Patients who suddenly stop taking the cholesterol-busting drugs face losing most of the protection they give to the heart.
This is because the main benefits of the cheap pills aren’t seen until later in life, scientists say.
Around 8million Britons and 32million Americans take statins every day, in order to cut their risk of heart complications due to high blood pressure.
But up to half of patients are thought to stop taking the drug due to suspected side effects, which can include muscle pain, digestive problems and headaches.
Dr Runguo Wu, lead author from Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘Stopping treatment, unless advised by a doctor, does not appear to be a wise choice.’
Around 8million Britons and 32 Americans take the cholesterol-busting pills every day, in order to cut their risk of heart attacks and strokes. But up to half of patients are thought to stop taking the drug due to suspected side effects, which can include muscle pain, digestive problems and headaches. Now, researchers have found that ditching the drugs could reduce the lifetime protection they offer against cardiovascular problems because the drugs give most benefit in later life
WHAT ARE STATINS?
Statins are a group of medicines that can help lower levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ in the blood.
Having too much of this type of cholesterol — called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — can lead to the thickening of the arteries and cardiovascular disease.
Statins work by stopping the liver from producing as much LDL.
Previous studies have found that the drug will prevent one heart attack or stroke for every 50 people taking it over five years.
The drug comes as a tablet that is taken once a day.
Most people have to take them for life, as stopping will cause their cholesterol to return to a high level within weeks.
Some people experience side effects from the medication, including diarrhoea, a headache or nausea.
People are usually told to make lifestyle changes in a bid to lower their cholesterol — such as improving diet and exercise habits, limiting alcohol consumption and stopping smoking — before being prescribed statins.
Statins are a group of drugs that stop the liver producing ‘bad’ cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
Over time, its build-up can lead to hardened and narrowed arteries and heart disease — one of the world’s leading causes of death.
People are currently prescribed statins if they have been diagnosed with the disease, or have a family history of it.
The tablets, which cost just 20p a pill and proven to be life-savers, are taken once a day.
Patients who stop taking them can see their cholesterol shoot back up within weeks.
However, lots of people stop taking them, or use them irregularly because of worries about side effects.
The researchers examined how their effectiveness dropped when patients came off the drugs.
They used data on 118,000 participants included in international statin trials and half a million included in the UK Biobank — a database of medical and genetic records.
They created a mathematical model which calculated the annual risk of heart attack and strokes for each participant.
Experts attempted to calculate what would happen if participants stopped taking a daily dose at 80, compared to those who took them for life.
At the same time, they compared delaying the use of statins by five years.
The benefits were measured in quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) — the extra years of life lived in perfect health.
The findings, set to be presented at European Society of Cardiology Congress in Barcelona on Saturday, show that most of the QALYs due to statins accrued in later life.
Patients who stopped taking the drug when they hit their 80s ‘erased a large share of the potential benefit’.
People in their fifties with low cardiovascular risk who stop taking the drug at 80 lose three-quarters of the QALYs they would have had if they kept taking the drug.
And those who are at high cardiovascular risk and stop their daily statins tablet at 80 lose a third of their extra healthy years that the drug provides.
Those who had low cardiovascular risk and delayed taking statins by five years lost just two per cent of the drug’s benefit.
But those at high risk who put off starting them lost seven per cent of the benefit.
Dr Wu said: ‘This is because people at higher cardiovascular risk start to accrue benefit early on and have more to lose by delaying statin therapy than those at low risk.’
He called for people in their 40s with a high likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease and people of all ages with existing heart disease to consider taking statins immediately.
Many doctors say the potential side effects of statins are overblown and supporters, including health watchdog NICE, say the pills should be prescribed more widely to prevent thousands of early deaths.
However, others worry about the potential long-term harms.
The drugs have been linked to diabetes and memory loss.
And scores are uneasy with what they describe as the ‘overmedicalisation’ of the middle-aged, which sees statins doled out ‘just in case’ patients have heart problems in later life.