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Doctors frequently prescribe cholesterol-fighting drugs that may carry a risk of significant side effects, even though there is limited evidence that the drugs will help their patients, according to the findings of new research.
In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that most doctors admitted they would prescribe a class of cholesterol drugs known as statins, such as Lipitor and Zocor, to patients who had very low odds of actually developing heart disease. The prescriptions were given despite potential risks of muscle damage, gastrointestinal problems, and liver damage.
The researchers sent surveys to 750 doctors nationwide, but only one-third responded. The survey included data on six fictitious patients with varying health situations. About 70% of those who responded to the survey would have recommended statins to patients who did not fit the profile of those who needed them, the researchers determined.
Statins are a class of medications used to lower cholesterol by reducing blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is a major contributor to coronary artery disease.
The cholesterol medications are one of the best-selling classes of drugs in the United States, with more than $14.5 billion in combined sales in 2008. Some of the most commonly marketed prescriptions of statins include: Advicor, Altoprev, Crestor Lescol, Lipitor, Lovalo, Mevacor, Pravachol, Simcor, Vytorin and Zocor.
Studies have found that about 1 in 10,000 statin users develop a sometimes-fatal muscle condition known as rhabdomyolysis. The rare condition causes skeletal muscle damage and releases myoglobin into the bloodstream. The myoglobin can cause severe kidney failure or death.
In 2002 and 2008, the FDA issued warnings about the increased risk of rhabdomylosis when statins are used in combination with heart medication containing amiodarone. In 2001, the statin-based drug Baycol was removed from the market due to its links with rhabdomyolysis.
In June 2011, the FDA placed restrictions on the use of 80 mg Zocor, which could include twice-a-day 40mg doses, due to the risk of myopathy and rhabdomyolysis, warning doctors that no new patients should be placed on the high dose regimen due to the risk of muscle problems.
Some studies have also linked statins to an increased risk of diabetes.
According to one study, a 27% increase in diabetes was found among statin users compared to another study which found a 9% increase in risk of diabetes among people who took the drug. Another study published in March in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that some statins could increase the risk of diabetes by as much as one-third.