Leading article: Drug dependency

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It seems that rarely a year goes by without a new product being hailed by the media as a potential "wonder drug". But there can be no denying that statins truly merit such a description. The cholesterol-lowering drugs can cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by a third and are now taken by 4.1 million people in the UK. They have almost certainly prolonged hundreds of thousands of lives around the world since they were introduced 20 years ago.

But even more could benefit, according to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The institute says in its latest guidelines that 1.4 million more people should be offered the drugs in Britain, and that GPs should step up their efforts to identify those at risk of heart disease by screening all adults aged between 40 and 75.

It is advice that health professionals certainly ought to take on board. Yet there is another, more complex, issue here; namely the "medicalising" of otherwise healthy individuals, and a somewhat chilling trend for doctors to prescribe drugs as a matter of routine.

As effective and convenient as statins are, cholesterol can usually also be reduced through lifestyle, such as adopting a healthier diet, taking more exercise and stopping smoking. Are such changes not preferable to a daily regimen of drug-taking? And is there not a responsibility for doctors to confront the underlying causes of heart disease first?

Perhaps, as a society, we will simply grow used to consuming drugs to prolong our lives. But it seems worthwhile at least to debate the feasibility and desirability of the alternatives where they exist.

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