Heart disease is not caused by high cholesterol so taking statins is 'waste of time', research finds

Research findings prompt row over efficacy and prescription of cholesterol-busting statins

Harry Cockburn
Monday 13 June 2016 12:05 BST
Statins are taken by around six million people every day in Britain
Statins are taken by around six million people every day in Britain (iStock)

Prescriptions for the cholesterol-reducing drugs statins are a waste of time, a group of experts have said in controversial new research which claims cholesterol does not cause heart disease in the elderly.

An international team of scientists reviewed 19 previous studies, involving 68,000 people, and said they found no link between high levels of LDL cholesterol, the so-called “bad cholesterol”, and heart disease in the over-60s.

The study, published in the BMJ Open Journal, found that 92 per cent of people over 60-years-old with high cholesterol lived as long as, or longer than those with low cholesterol levels. In the remaining 8 per cent, no association was found.

Statins have long been prescribed as a means of reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes caused by atherosclerosis – a hardening and narrowing of the arteries, thought to be closely related to high levels of cholesterol.

The authors have called for a reevaluation of statin prescriptions, saying “the benefits from statin treatment have been exaggerated”.

But the team claims its research indicates high levels of cholesterol may even be beneficial in preventing other illnesses. High cholesterol, the team writes, “binds to and inactivates a broad range of microorganisms and their toxic products”, protecting people from some diseases.

The researchers also claim high cholesterol levels “may protect against cancer”, as studies following 140,000 people for between 10 and 30 years found lower levels of cancer in those whose total cholesterol levels were higher.

They also cite research in which rodents given cholesterol lowering drugs developed cancers.

The research has prompted fierce criticism from academics, who have questioned the research methods and bias of the authors.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said the findings were “not surprising because, as we get older, many more factors determine our overall health, making the impact of high cholesterol levels less easy to detect".

He added: “In contrast, the evidence from large clinical trials demonstrates very clearly that lowering LDL cholesterol reduces our risk of death overall and from heart attacks and strokes, regardless of age.”

Professor Colin Baigent, an epidemiologist at Oxford University, said the new study had “serious weaknesses and, as a consequence, has reached completely the wrong conclusion”, the Telegraph reports.

One of the paper’s authors is Dr Aseem Malhotra, who recently made headlines after he told people to “eat fat to get slim”, following the publication of a report by the National Obesity Forum. He is also an outspoken critic of the prescription of statins.

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