UK's most respected national director for heart diseases, of the Department of Health, is backing statins all the way. Professor Roger Boyle is of opinion that every man over the age of 50 should be on a daily medication of cholesterol-lowering drugs to protect against heart disease and stroke.
According to Boyle the blanket prescription of statins should also apply to women from 60 or 65 to reduce the hundreds of thousands of deaths a year from cardiovascular diseases. At the same time, Boyle acknowledges that such a move would lead to accusations of a "nanny state" and that people would resist being medicalised from the age of 50 or 60.
AdvertisementOn the other hand, the British Heart Foundation has urged caution against mass medication using statins until there is longer-term data on the side-effects. Research published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests a very slight increase in cancers associated with higher doses of the drugs.
Yet counteracts Boyle, the benefits of the cholesterol-busting drugs are proven and the side effects are among the mildest of any drug. He also says that the current method of spotting those at risk is too long, which means some people might be long overdue their dose of statins.
This is why Boyle states that with age being the single biggest predictor of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular illnesses, an age limit would be the simplest way of making sure people who needed them got them.
"The shortcut is that once you're a man over the age of 50 you should be on statins", he opines. At the same time, he adds:"There needs to be a debate about that. I think choice remains an important thing."
There are currently 3 million people taking statins in England, which saves an estimated 10,000 lives a year at a cost of £550m. The government has already sanctioned moves to double the number of people taking statins by lowering the risk threshold that people have to reach to be prescribed the drugs.
Prof Boyle told a press briefing on statins in London yesterday that blanket prescribing for older people would be financially viable.
Says Peter Weissberg, of the British Heart Foundation: "I don't think it is the right approach at this stage. I've always taken a cautious view of prescribing; there's no such thing as a safe drug. There's always a downside.
"With statins, the downside is as low as I've seen in my whole life for a drug. But you need experience before you take the fluoride approach, which is effectively what that would be", he opines. He refers here to the practice of mass medicating by adding fluorides to community water supplies.
As of now, known side-effects associated with statins are headache, pins and needles, bloating, diarrhea and rash but these are generally very mild and well tolerated. More rarely, people can suffer a severe form of muscle inflammation.
In response to a query, a Department of Health spokesperson said there was currently no move to change from the NHS's current individual assessment system to a blanket approach.