High cholesterol and the controversy around statins

High cholesterol is incredibly serious and can lead to potentially life-threatening conditions. Here we’re going to look at what cholesterol is, how it’s treated and why patients often fail to take their medication as prescribed.

What is high cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance found in the blood. It mainly comes from eating fatty foods, smoking and drinking alcohol. However, not exercising enough and family history can also be contributing factors.

If you have too much cholesterol, your arteries can narrow and harden as it blocks the blood vessels. This can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions such as:

  • Angina
  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes

Despite its seriousness, the symptoms of having high cholesterol won’t be immediately obvious. In fact, you can only find out if you’ve got it by taking a blood test.

Managing high cholesterol

The best and first thing you can do to help manage high cholesterol is to eat less fatty foods and exercise more. Medication can help if you’re already at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

if you make these changes and your cholesterol levels go up or you’re already at risk from a heart attack or stroke then medication can help.

Statins are the most commonly prescribed medication used to help manage high cholesterol in patients. They’re taken once a day and help by reducing the amount of cholesterol produced in the body.

However, patients can fail to take their medication as prescribed. Although it’s difficult to know the exact number of patients who skip medication, as they may not inform their doctor.

Why don’t patients take their medication?

There are many reasons why patients fail to take their medication as prescribed. Busier lifestyles, juggling a hectic work schedule and family commitments often means patients put others before themselves. This means it’s often difficult for people to fit in a trip to the pharmacy or GP. Another reason which is often cited is forgetfulness.

Patients can also intentionally choose to stop taking their medication. This could be done because they think that their condition has improved. With statins, it’s often because high cholesterol doesn’t have any obvious symptoms so the risks are not always immediately clear.

Whatever the reason, a gap in taking medication as prescribed can potentially pose serious health risks. This is certainly true for those patients who fail to take their statins, as high cholesterol can eventually lead to more serious and potentially life threatening conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

Statins: controversy vs evidence

You’ll quite often read about statins in national newspapers where we’re often told conflicting information about the benefits and alleged ‘risks’ of taking statins. It’s fair to say this can feel confusing and as a result some patients can stop taking their statins as prescribed.

However, The current evidence from the NHS is quite clear. The long term cardiovascular benefits of taking statins regularly are significant. Even though you won’t feel any immediate benefit in taking them now, they’re working in the background to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease in later years.

Useful advice for taking statins

Some statins are best taken at night, but others can be taken at any time of day, so if you are struggling to remember to take yours at night, or if you feel that you’re experiencing some side effects with your current statin, ask your GP if you can change to a different one.

Whatever happens, it’s important that you don’t stop taking them without discussing it with your GP first.

Phil Day By Phil Day Superintendent Pharmacist Published 17/10/2019