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Jeremy Laurance: Good news, but think twice before popping pills

They are the biggest-selling drugs in the world – and with reason. In the UK, cardiovascular disease causes more than one in three deaths – 120,000 mortalities a year. Statins have the capacity to cut that toll by a third. Hence their billing as the "miracle drugs" of the 21st century.

Add to that their newly emerging role in preventing dementia, possibly slashing the risk by as much as half, and the question for every middle-aged man or woman becomes not "should I be taking it, Doc?", but "can I afford not to take it?"

The Government's heart tsar, Professor Roger Boyle, who takes a daily statin, is an evangelist for the drugs, suggesting that everyone over a certain age (50 for men, 60 for women) should be on them. Yet although the numbers taking them have soared beyond four million in the UK, half of those prescribed the drugs give up taking them within a year.

There are recognised side-effects on the liver and on the muscles. Some patients complain that statins cause depression, but doctors protest that there is no evidence to back that up and it is the diagnosis (a risk of heart disease) that causes the depression.

But this is hardly reassuring. As more and more of us pop the pills, there is a question what effect mass medication will have on our collective psyche. The prescription of a statin may be the first intimation of our mortality. Can we be blamed for wanting to put it off?