This week The Age reported that cholesterol – lowering drugs increase the risk of diabetes and memory impairment. This is really bad news for around two million Australians who take these medications believing they’ll lower their heart attack risk. While the report is concerning, it is also comforting to know that there is now too much evidence for health authorities to ignore the side effects of statins.
It is true that statins inhibit the production of cholesterol but the reality is that every cell membrane contains cholesterol, vital for the production of hormones, cellular repair and overall good health including that of the brain. Medication with statins such as Lipitor, Zocor and Pravachol rob our bodies of cholesterol, crucial for proper neurological function so it’s no surprise that there’s an increase in dementia. That rates of diabetes are rising is also understandable since cholesterol is required for the regulation of blood sugar levels.
But there is much more to the myth that is the cholesterol story. Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, author of The Cholesterol Myths explains that it all began with the landmark Framingham Heart Study, which followed healthy people in the early 1950s to see who had a heart attack and what distinguished them from the people who did not. High cholesterol was one risk factor–but it was only one of more than 240 others. Ravnskov said that the public health officials and cardiologists, confused a statistical association with causation resulting in a new disease called hypercholesterolemia, the health issue of the 21st century.
According to researchers Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, many people who feel perfectly healthy suffer from high cholesterol– in fact feeling good is actually a symptom of high cholesterol. Living longer is an effect of high cholesterol with Dr. Harlan Krumholz of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Yale University, reporting in 1994 that twice as many old people with low cholesterol died from a heart attack than did old people with high cholesterol.
It is pleasing to hear that a recent study has found that clinical and public health recommendations regarding the ‘dangers’ of cholesterol should be revised. This is especially true for women, for whom moderately elevated cholesterol may prove to be not only harmless but even beneficial. ‘High Cholesterol is not a risk factor for women’, says Dr Uffe Ravnskov but inspite of this women are being treated for high cholesterol.
The Cholesterol Myths begins with a story about Karla. She was a fit and healthy 62 year old cleaner when she learned she had an elevated cholesterol reading. She was instructed to change her diet and lose weight. ‘I was as fit as a fiddle’, Karla told Ravnskov. Even so she followed her doctor’s orders changing her diet to one of high fibre, making use of vegetable oils instead of butter and cream. Failing to lose the prescribed weight and unable to lower her cholesterol she was put on medication. In no time her ravenous appetite had disappeared, her positive demeanour gone, but her cholesterol was way down.
Karla is not alone. Mary Adams began to notice slurred speech, balance problems and severe fatigue after she had been taking a commonly prescribed statin drug for three years. Her problems included loss of sleep due to restless and twitching limbs. And that wasn’t all. Very soon she began to suffer loss of balance and problems with her gait and her fine motor skills were not what they had been. Once Mary took the next step and ceased taking her regular cholesterol-lowering pill she recovered her previous health.
So if cholesterol isn’t the villain what does cause heart disease? According to researchers Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, heart disease was very rare in 1900 responsible for about 8% of all deaths in the US compared with today’s figures of approximately 45%. The type of heart disease prevalent today is a myocardial infarction or a heart attack where a blood clot obstructs the coronary arteries with the subsequent death of the heart muscle and is a form of heart disease that was almost unheard of before 1910. By 1950, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US.
We do need to counteract the high rates of heart disease. But rather than swallowing drugs that interfere with vital cholesterol function we need to adopt healthy lifestyles such as eating fresh foods, not smoking, avoiding pesticides and chemicals,and taking up daily exercise.