New guidelines issued recently could mean that as many as one in six American adults could be advised to take one of a class of prescription drugs called statins. The recommendations of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) could triple the number of Americans taking statins. The panel hopes that expanded use of the drugs -- with improved diets and more exercise -- will help reduce the close to 1.1 million heart attacks and half a million deaths attributed to heart disease each year.
The aim is to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol, especially in people with heart disease, diabetes, or multiple risk factors for a heart attack.
Statin drugs work by slowing down the liver's production of cholesterol and increasing its ability to remove LDL cholesterol already in the blood. Statins may also modestly increase HDL, the good cholesterol, and slightly decrease triglycerides, another fat in the blood. The three biggest-selling brands of statins are Lipitor, Zocor, and Pravachol.
For patients needing no more than a 20% reduction in cholesterol levels, any of the statins will be equally effective. For patients with higher cholesterol levels, doctors may be more likely to prescribe some of the newer, more potent statins like Lipitor, which, particularly at higher doses, can produce a steeper drop.