The benefits of taking cholesterol-lowering drugs are far greater than the risks, a major new study has shown.
Statins reduce the risk of people suffering heart attacks and strokes by lower the level of cholesterol produced in the liver and have become the most prescribed drug on the NHS.
Up to 12.5m people are eligible for the drugs, but many doctors have said that millions of patients could be over-medicated and at risk from side-effects, including diabetes.
However a new study published in the respected Lancet medical journal shows that the benefits of statins outweigh the risks, and that the diabetes risk of taking the drug was “small”.
The study of 130,000 people is being seized upon as the best evidence yet that statins work and that genetic testing of potential statins patients to determine their diabetes risk is unnecessary.
“The genetic findings of our study help to explain the mechanism by which statins increase weight and diabetes risk,” says co-senior author Professor Aroon Hingorani, director of the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science. “However, the effects of the genetic variants are orders of magnitude lower than the effects of statins. There is also no indication from this study that an individual's genetic make-up will meaningfully affect their clinical response to statin treatment. Statin drugs should continue to be prescribed without the need for any form of genetic testing.”
The study, which is supported by the British Heart Foundation, found that patients who used took statins over a four-year period were 12 per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and also gain around half a pound in weight.
“Weight gain is a risk factor for diabetes which might help explain the small increased risk of diabetes observed in people taking statins”, said Dr David Preiss, co-author of the report from the of Glasgow Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences.
Despite the widespread prescription of statins cardiovascular diseases remains the cause of one in three of all deaths in the UK. In July the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) called for four-and-a-half million more adults should be offered statins to avert “a tragedy waiting to happen” and save 50,000 lives a year.
The latest study has been welcomed by heart health campaigners, but warns patients to be aware of the weight-gain risk and to alter their lifestyle and diet according.
"Weight gain is a risk factor for diabetes which might help explain the small increased risk of diabetes observed in people taking statins", explains co-lead author Dr David Preiss of the University of Glasgow Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences.
“Previous analyses have indicated that the cardiovascular benefits of statin treatment greatly outweigh the risk of new-onset type 2 diabetes,” says co-senior author Professor Naveed Sattar of the University of Glasgow Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences. “Nevertheless, many patients eligible for statin treatment would also benefit from lifestyle changes including increased physical activity, eating more healthily and stopping smoking."