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Newsweek Cover Story: Cholesterol and Beyond

  [ 196 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • July 21, 2003

'Statins Are the New Aspirin,' Says Researcher

NEW YORK, July 6 /PRNewswire/ -- An estimated 12 to 15 million American adults of every age and description -- from Gen-Xers to their octogenarian grandparents -- depend on America's most popular prescription drugs to scour their bloodstreams of LDL cholesterol, the waxy goo that can block arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes. And, according to federal health guidelines, 21 million more Americans should be taking statins to help ward off cardiovascular disease.

As Newsweek Senior Editor David Noonan reports in the current issue, statins have become so critical in the war against cholesterol that a leading statin researcher compares them to the ultimate miracle med. "Statins are the new aspirin," says Dr. Rory Collins of Oxford University in the July 14 Newsweek cover story, "Cholesterol-And Beyond," (on newsstands Monday, July 7).

Noonan reports that promising new research is underway to investigate statins as a treatment for a number of other disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and even cancer. "I'm very, very hopeful," says Alzheimer's researcher Dr. Larry Sparks of Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Ariz., who is nearing the end of a yearlong clinical trial of statins.

All these pills mean big profits for the pharmaceutical companies. But heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, taking more than 500,000 lives each year. With Americans less inclined than ever to do the things -- like eating less saturated fat and exercising -- that are known to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack, statins have emerged as perhaps our most reliable weapon against a relentless killer. "For those that can't, the drugs are crucially important because they will provide a degree of LDL lowering that lifestyle alone won't, in most cases, achieve," says Dr. James Cleeman, head of the NIH's National Cholesterol Education Program.

Critics of drug therapy say the NIH guidelines and Collins's study are flawed by an implicit assumption that people can't or won't change their behavior. They say statins can reinforce bad habits and actually serve as a disincentive to get up and move. "Most people can accomplish comparable reductions in LDL [the bad cholesterol] by diet and lifestyle alone, if the changes are comprehensive enough," says Dr. Dean Ornish, head of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif.

In a 1998 study, Ornish reported a 40 percent reduction in LDL after one year among a group of patients with heart disease who followed a rigorous diet and exercise program. Besides getting 30 minutes of exercise daily, Ornish's patients ate a low-fat, vegetarian diet.

Noonan also reports the latest research and studies for statins to combat Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, aortic-valve disease -- a hardening of the valve between the heart and the aorta -- and osteoporosis, the age-related deterioration of bone that leads to fractures. Also, a Dutch study released last month found that people who had been using statins for four years or more had a 20 percent reduction in their cancer risk, especially prostate and liver cancer.

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