PROVIDENCE – Dr. Barbara Roberts, director of the Women’s Cardiac Center at The Miriam Hospital, is angry – and she’s speaking out.
Roberts, a cardiologist who is associate clinical professor of Medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, is the author of “The Truth about Statins: Risks and Alternatives to Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs.”
She does not mince her words when it comes to the new cholesterol guidelines recently published by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology – which have suggested that millions of healthy Americans should start taking statins.
“The new guidelines are based on shoddy science and misinterpretation of the data,” she told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview. “This is a gift to Big Pharma. The American Heart Association has become little more than a propaganda arm of Big Pharma and Big Food. It’s a disgrace.”
Expanding the number of healthy people who take statins by the tens of millions, Roberts continued, “is going to reap a holocaust of adverse effects.”
Holocaust? Isn’t that too strong a word to use?
“No,” countered Roberts. “I will stand by that. For example, we may see upward of more than a quarter-million new cases of diabetes as a result. At a minimum, about 10 percent of new users of statins will suffer serious muscle side effects.” In addition, Roberts continued, “We will see increased instances of cognitive dysfunction, nerve damage, liver damage and an increased risk of kidney injury.”
Worse, Roberts said, “Nobody’s life is going to be extended; nobody’s life is going to be saved [by having healthy people taking statins].”
Roberts is not alone in debunking the new guidelines. She pointed to a Nov. 13 op-ed in The New York Times, written by John D. Abramson, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Rita F. Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center and the editor of JAMA Internal Medicine.
“Statins are effective for people with known heart disease. But for people who have less than a 20 percent risk of getting heart disease in the next 10 years, statins not only fail to reduce the risk of death, but also fail even to reduce the risk of serious illness,” Abramson and Redberg wrote. Based upon the same data the guideline writers relied on, they continued, “140 people in this risk group would need to be treated with statins in order to prevent a single heart attack or stroke, without any overall reduction in death or serious illness.”
Roberts said: “We have a saying in medicine. If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
An alternative to statins
Roberts promotes an alternative to statins for most of her patients – a Mediterranean diet that is high in monounsaturated fats from olive oil and is low in red meat. “Adhering to the plant-based Mediterranean diet will lower your risk of heart disease just as much as any use of statins – without any side effects,” she said.
Very few physicians, Roberts continued, will read all 85 pages of the new guidelines. “What people have to do is to become informed patients. They have to read both points of view and come to a decision on their own,” she said. But it’s very important, Roberts said, for people to know that statins are not as innocuous as people have been led to believe.
The numbers in the studies, she reiterated, show that you would need “to treat more than 100 people for a number of years to prevent one event [of a heart attack].”
Further, she argued, “cholesterol is misunderstood. It’s not the villain it’s been said to be. Every cell has cholesterol; 25 percent of cholesterol is in your brain. It’s absolutely crucial to the function of the brain.”
Heart disease is still the number-one cause of death in adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 597,000 deaths in 2011, according to statistics released in January 2013.
Changes in diet and lifestyle -- as well as what Roberts’ terms “primordial” interventions are the best ways to address chronic heart disease – rather than prescribing statins.
“We need to stop subsidizing the production of corn and soy, which are the ingredients in many of the unhealthy foods that are foisted on people,” she said. “We need to try to limit the advertising to children of unhealthy food products such as Cocoa Puffs. We need to raise cigarette taxes even more. And we need to stop eliminating physical education classes.”
Most doctors have swallowed the Kool-Aid
Roberts is been an outspoken advocate against the misuse of statins. “I’ve never turned down a speaking engagement – from Pawtucket to Reykjavík, Iceland.”
Many doctors, she continued, don’t want to hear what she has to say. “They don’t want to hear it so much,” she said.
“Because they’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid, most of them,” she said. “I would be happy to talk with them and give them my perspective, that the use of statins is not supported by the medical literature.”
Further, Roberts continued, the fact remains that “we really don’t know the truth about statins. The reason I say that is because we know that a lot of studies that are undertaken never get published.”
Roberts cited a recent British Medical Journal article that showed that for all registered clinical studies, 29 percent of those trials never get published.
“It’s much more common for an industry-sponsored study not to be published,” she said. “Industry-sponsored clinical trials are four times more likely to report positive results than non-industry sponsored clinical trials. There could be a lot of studies that showed statins were not efficacious that we don’t know about because they have never been published.”