I don’t mean to pick on statins. There’s just so much about them in the news right now. A colleague pointed me to an excellent website that puts findings about prescription drugs into perspective. And I think it’s important information to share.
Most studies showing benefits of drugs (or other substances), tout the results showing that taking the drug (or other substance) changes something more than would be expected from chance alone. For example, a positive study would be one showing that taking statins lowers cholesterol more than taking a placebo pill would do. In this case, the idea is that lowering cholesterol reduces heart-disease risk, and that statins therefore help prevent heart disease.
What the drug studies often don’t advertise, however, is how many people need to take the drug to see any positive or negative effect on the larger diseases the treatment is intended to address. This is called the “numbers needed to treat,” and can be very telling. The website my colleague recommended looks at numbers needed to treat for different classes of drugs.
Do statins help prevent heart disease? The numbers are not encouraging: In total, 98 percent of people treated (without prior heart disease) saw no benefit from the drugs. The drugs prevented heart attacks in only 16 out of 1,000 people, and prevented strokes in just four out of 1,000 people.
On the harm side, however, the numbers tell an uglier story: Two percent of people (20 per 1,000) developed diabetes from taking statins, and 10 percent (100 per 1,000) developed muscle damage.
As with many drugs, statins are showing less promise and more problems as our experience with them rises. Meanwhile, old favorite foods like garlic and other herbal medicines reveal themselves as multifaceted and ultimately the best tools we have for health.