Ask any three otherwise healthy cardiologists whether they are taking a cholesterol-lowering drug, and chances are good that at least two of them will reply with a hearty "You bet." Their prescription of choice: one of a group of drugs called statins--marketed under such names as Lipitor, Pravachol and Zocor--that have been proved to reduce deaths among heart-attack survivors by more than 40% over five years. In effect, the doctors are taking a highly educated gamble that the medications, currently taken by more than 10 million Americans, will be just as effective in those who do not necessarily fit the profile of a typical high-risk patient.
Such folks often fall through the cracks. Maybe their LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, is a wee bit high, and their HDL, or "good" cholesterol, is a tad low. Or maybe they have diabetes, which commonly leads to cardiovascular disease, but don't yet show the effects. "I'm not recommending putting [statins] in the drinking water," says Dr. Antonio Gotto, a cardiologist and dean of Weill-Cornell School of Medicine in New York City. "But some 6 million to 7 million more people could benefit from their use."
It's an idea that's sure to generate lively debate in New Orleans later this month at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association. Just two weeks ago, a study in the British Medical Journal concluded that statins could reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack 30% even among those with normal cholesterol levels and no sign of cardiovascular disease. Pharmaceutical giants Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb have gone so far as to petition the Food and Drug Administration to allow consumers to buy some low-dose statins over the counter, without first having to obtain a physician's prescription (more on that below).
So what's the catch? Well, apart from the fact that the drugs are expensive, averaging $3 a pill, and you would presumably have to take them for the rest of your life, they can, in rare cases, cause liver damage or a breakdown of muscle tissue. Anyone who is using statins needs to undergo periodic blood tests to check for signs of liver trouble. Most people on the pills report no complaints; those who do commonly list fatigue as the major side effect. Others refer to the peace of mind statins give them. "I feel safer," says Janet Brown, a 57-year-old New Yorker, who has watched her LDL drop from 177 mg/dl to 90 mg/dl. "I'm not walking on life's tightrope when it comes to my cholesterol."
Statins work by partly blocking an enzyme found in the liver that turns some of the foods you eat into cholesterol. (We couldn't live without some cholesterol; the body uses it to stabilize cell membranes and to manufacture many hormones.) To make up the shortfall, the body draws on the excess cholesterol found in the blood.
By adopting a low-fat diet, getting plenty of exercise and losing a little weight, most people can reduce their total cholesterol levels an average of 10% to 20%. Yet that's only about half the effect of the weakest of the currently available statins. Stronger drugs, like Pfizer's Lipitor, can lop off 50%, and AstraZeneca is testing a "superstatin" that reportedly reduces cholesterol levels as much as 70%. (In each case, statins work best when a low-fat diet is adopted.)