The Risks of Cholesterol Drugs

Reprinted from PN August 2012

Cholesterol is an essential molecule for the body, especially for the nervous system and spinal cord.

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Cholesterol is an essential molecule for the body, especially for the nervous system and spinal cord. In spite of the hype otherwise, too low cholesterol levels are associated with numerous health problems, including compromised mental health, infectious disease, and increased risk of dying.  

A recent Norwegian study indicated death rates were highest in individuals with the lowest cholesterol levels. In women specifically, as cholesterol levels increased to what had been previously deemed unhealthy, death rates declined. The investigators concluded “clinical and public-health recommendations regarding the dangers of cholesterol should be revised.”

Given such recommendations, many are reconsidering the prevalent practice of prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs, especially when such drugs are associated with numerous adverse effects. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that many of these drugs now must be labeled with side-effect warnings.

Even if risks are relatively low, because the consumption of these drugs is so extensive, the cumulative societal health impact over time may be substantial.


The most commonly prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs are statins.

They work by blocking an enzyme involved in cholesterol synthesis. As an analogy, view this biosynthesis like a heavily trafficked, eight-lane highway leading to an NFL stadium being shut down to two lanes due to construction. Statins are the molecular equivalent of lane-narrowing traffic cones and speed bumps in the cholesterol-producing, biochemical pathway. As a result of these barriers, less cholesterol can get into the “game.”

Many scientists now believe any statin-induced reduction in cardiovascular-disease risk is not directly due to cholesterol lowering but related to other physiological factors, such as lessening inflammation. This appears to be the case for spinal-cord injury (SCI), where rat studies suggest the statin drug Lipitor limits the infusion of inflammatory molecules into the injury site, reducing damage.

Statins are hugely profitable. Lipitor is the world’s top-selling medicine, generating more than $13 billion in sales in 2010. Taking statins is not like taking antibiotics for a urinary tract infection (UTI) in which once the infection has been cured you can quit taking the drug.

With statins, nothing is fixed; you are expected to take them the rest of your life. As such, you are essentially providing drugmakers a lifetime financial annuity that you or society must pay. Given the massive numbers of people prescribed statins, one can only imagine the healthcare savings that would accrue if the underlying foundation for statin use was no longer valid.

Duane Graveline, MD, MPH, is a family doctor, USAF research scientist, and statin victim.

Side Effects

Because statins reduce cardiovascular-disease risk by only a small amount at best, any life-extending benefits are counterbalanced by a multitude of devastating side effects.

You may avoid a heart attack but, for example, be more prone to get cancer or a neurological disorder. In the case of Lipitor, 100 people will have to take the drug for more than three years to prevent one heart attack. The other 99 will be taking on a lot of adverse side effects for no benefit at a huge cost.  Because many of the side effects only surface over time, they are not attributed to statin use but interpreted as new, distinct health issues, requiring treatment with yet additional drugs.

Adverse Effects

Diabetes: Because diabetes is related to cardiovascular problems, physicians often prescribe statins. In fact, however, statin use actually raises blood sugar levels, increasing diabetes risk. Because cholesterol is the biochemical precursor to vitamin D, statin use may compromise its levels, a nutrient that regulates blood-sugar levels.

Polyneuropathy is a condition in which peripheral nerves are damaged. Statin users have more polyneuropathy, a serious implication for diabetics already predisposed to this disorder.

Muscle Damage: Many statin users experience muscle pain and weakness. Research indicates that statins compromise the ability of muscles to repair and regenerate.

These problems may be caused by a depletion of Coenyzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a nutrient vital for cellular energy production. Because CoQ10 is manufactured by the same biochemical pathway that generates cholesterol, statins inhibit its production, contributing to muscle weakness.

If you take statins, take them with CoQ10, a readily available nutritional supplement. Recognizing the problem, at one time drugmakers even considered adding CoQ10 to their statin formulations.

Heart Failure: Because the heart is a muscle, evidence suggests that statin-induced CoQ10 depletion may actually promote, not prevent, heart failure.

Stroke: Statin use increases second stroke risk.

Liver Damage: In a Swedish study, 57% of all statin-connected adverse drug reactions were related to drug-induced liver injury.

Impotence: Because cholesterol is the biochemical precursor for testosterone, it’s not surprising the use of cholesterol-lowering statins is associated with sexual dysfunction. Given that SCI already compromises testosterone production, it is questionable whether individuals with SCI should be administered a drug that further inhibits testosterone synthesis.

Cancer: Animal studies suggest statin consumption increases cancer risk. Several human studies validate this concern.

Memory loss is associated with statin use. For example, former astronaut Duane Graveline, MD, MPH (see sidebar, “No Questions Asked”) has written Lipitor: Thief of Memory and other books describing how he lost his short-term memory after taking Lipitor.

Neurodegenerative Disorders: Statin use has been linked with several neurodegenerative disorders. For example, statin-depleted CoQ10 levels may facilitate the development of Parkinson’s disease, associated with shaking and difficulty with walking, movement, and coordination. In another example, research suggests patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) who possess higher cholesterol levels live longer.


My college chemistry professor believed scientists should run society because they have been trained to
be objective.

After spending years in Washington, D.C., policy-making positions, I roll my eyes when remembering his naivety and now cynically believe that sanctimoniously called “objective science” is an oxymoron.

Although an invaluable signpost guiding us to new knowledge, the scientific process is imbued at all levels with subjectivity, including, in the case of cholesterol-lowering drugs, economical agendas and underlying statistical manipulation.

For example, a 2004 National  Institutes of  Health (NIH) panel recommended that acceptable cholesterol levels be revised downward, a decision that would greatly increase statin drug market size. Surprise, surprise — the majority of panel members had financial conflicts of interests with statin drugmakers.

Statistical manipulation is another issue. Considered objective-science’s cornerstone, statistics are used to anoint study validity, theoretically transcending subjectivity.  In reality, they are more reflective of Mark Twain’s wisdom: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

By tweaking, manipulating, and presenting data in a fashion that promotes desired results, statistics are used to bolster economic agendas. For example, when TV news reports that a drug greatly lowers disease risk, their proclamation usually reflects only relative, not absolute, risk.

To illustrate, if ten out of 10,000 untreated people normally die from a disorder but only five die in 10,000 treated individuals, the relative risk has decreased by 50%, but the absolute risk reduction (five out of 10,000) is less impressive. Both risks are valid, but one sounds earthshaking and the other insignificant.

In addition, although risk reduction for a specific endpoint (e.g., cardiovascular disease) is emphasized, the more important effect on overall mortality is often ignored. In other words, will you live longer? 

As with all things in life, truth is relative and depends upon the goals, objectives, and perceptions of those assessing it. You need to determine your own truth by educating yourself on potential risks relative to benefits.

It’s your life; do not abdicate your responsibility.



No Questions Asked


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