Seniors are nearly four times more likely to be prescribed cholesterol-lowering statins than they were in 1999, and in many cases the drugs are being prescribed to the elderly who have no signs of heart disease, exposing them to potentially serious statin side effects.
Statins are among the most prescribed drugs in the world. They are designed to drive down high cholesterol levels to help prevent heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular-related deaths. New guidelines have dramatically expanded by millions the number of patient who are now eligible to take the drugs.
The guidelines offer a “risk calculator” to figure a person’s 10-year risk of heart attack that determines whether he should be prescribed statin drugs. But that algorithm essentially lumps all elderly persons in the high risk category, resulting in prescriptions for statins.
However, new concerns have risen regarding statin use among very elderly people. There is little research that shows whether the benefits of statin use in elderly patients outweighs the risks, which include potentially debilitating muscle pain and the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Average life expectancy is 76 for men and 81 for women, and no statin studies have been conducted in people older than 79. The vast majority of research involving statin drugs involves much younger people.
It’s time to fund more clinical studies to investigate the use of statins in elderly patients, says Robert Eckel, an endocrinologist and professor of biophysics at the University of Colorado Denver, and member of the American Heart Association that helped draft the guidelines. “It’s a gray zone … evidence based medicine only goes so far,” he said.