Cholesterol tests unlikely to save lives

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CHOLESTEROL screening is unlikely to save lives and can be misleading or even harmful, a report says today.

People who discover they have a raised cholesterol level in their blood may even start to feel ill - simply labelling them as "high cholesterol" may cause them to "adopt the sick role".

Two-thirds of GPs offer some cholesterol testing and one survey showed that 28 per cent of people aged 45-64 had had their blood cholesterol screened in the last three years.

A review of research on the role of cholesterol in heart disease says that although it is an important factor, by itself it is a poor predictor of heart attacks. Most men who have heart attacks have a level at or below the average of 6 mmols per litre. Focusing on cholesterol may distract from bigger risks like high blood pressure.

The study, by the NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, a government- funded agency, says that cholesterol-lowering drugs do save lives among patients at high risk - smokers, or couch potatoes - but are not appropriate for people whose only risk is a raised cholesterol level.

Cholesterol-reducing drugs are expensive and spending on them has risen more than fivefold since 1993 to pounds 113m. Other drugs which can cut the risk of heart attacks, such as aspirin, are cheaper and should be tried first, the report says.

One drug, Lovostatin, is set to come off patent next year which could bring a sharp fall in its price, saving the NHS millions. But Lovostatin is only licensed in the US and its manufacturer, Merck, Sharp and Dohme, has no plans to license it in the UK because it would be a rival for Simvastatin, also made by MSD, whose patent runs until 2008.