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He had been a faculty member in three departments of a major university with an IQ north of 180. Over time, the professor lost the ability to recognize people he’d known closely for decades and to read more than a page of text at a time. He’d repeat the same thing over and over, not recalling he’d already said it. The diagnosis: rapidly progressive Alzheimer’s. When he went to his 50th college reunion, he wore a sign around his neck with his name and the statement, I have Alzheimer’s. Old friends needed an explanation for why he couldn’t recognize people he’d known for decades or repeated himself endlessly throughout the night.
His condition seemed hopeless when he applied to enter a clinical trial testing a new Alzheimer’s drug at Duke University.
Before he started the clinical trial, his wife took him off his cholesterol-lowering statin drug, simvastatin. By the time he got to Duke, he was no longer qualified to participate; he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, doctors said. Instead, he entered another study: The Statin Study Group, directed by University of California at San Diego (UCSD) physician and scientist Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD. “There are people with extremely severe functional deficits caused by statin drugs,” Golomb says. Two years after he stopped taking simvastatin, the patient reported his recovery was complete. His mind was clear and he was back to reading three newspapers daily.
Statin’s side effects are rarely so severe, but they are far more common — and numerous — than generally thought. And statins aren’t the only popular drug with unpredictable side effects. Three common classes of prescription drugs in the United States — statins for reducing cholesterol, angiotensin II antagonists for lowering blood pressure, and proton pump inhibitors for reducing stomach acid — can all cause side effects worse than the problems they aim to treat. And the symptoms caused by one drug may necessitate the use of the others.
For large numbers of people with questionable risk factors, these drugs deliver little or no benefit, but that hasn’t stopped pharmaceutical manufacturers from aggressively marketing them as preventive treatments. Underlying their marketing strategy is a host of scientific studies that “exaggerate positive results and bury negative ones,” says Shannon Brownlee, author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer (Bloomsbury USA, 2007). “The science on which so much of prescribing is based is biased, shaky, over-marketed and misinterpreted. These are excellent drugs when used on the right people. The problem comes when they’re marketed to everyone on the planet. There’s benefit to a few people, but when you start giving them to everybody, they may do more harm than good.”