Around a third of people who are taking a statin probably don’t need the drug – and that’s because we’ve got it wrong about the usual risk factors for heart disease and stroke. People with higher levels of cholesterol and raised blood pressure are usually given the drug, but there’s a far more accurate method for assessing the real risk, say researchers.

Only people with raised calcium levels in their arteries should be taking a statin, say researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, USA. Instead, they are routinely given to people with higher cholesterol levels or raised blood pressure or have diabetes, and increasingly to all people over the age of 50 as a ‘just-in-case’ medication.

As a result, around one third of people are taking a statin unnecessarily, and are also exposing themselves to one of the drug’s side effects. Ironically, those who are at higher risk of a heart attack or stroke are often overlooked and are not being prescribed statins.

The current markers of possible heart disease – such as high cholesterol, raised blood pressure or diabetes – just aren’t accurate enough. Instead, a build-up of calcium in the arteries is a far better indicator of potential trouble, say the researchers who assessed the health of 6,698 patients with heart problems. Over a seven-year period, the researchers found that measures of coronary artery calcium (CAC) were the best indicators of heart disease, and only those with high levels should be treated with statins.

In fact, CAC levels successfully identified 15 per cent of patients who were likely to develop heart disease, and yet, according to all the traditional measures, were at low risk. Conversely, 35 per cent of patients who were at high risk
according to their cholesterol and blood pressure levels were, in fact, at very low risk.

(Source: European Heart Journal, 2013; doi: 10.1093/ eurheartj/eht508)