A study published in the British Medical Journal has linked the use of statins with some pretty serious side effects, but experts at the British Heart Foundation stress that the benefit of these drugs still outweighs their risks.

Millions of people in the UK regularly take statin drugs to reduce levels of cholesterol and thereby help prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease, which remains the number one cause of premature death in the country.

Under current guidelines in the UK, doctors should be prescribing statins to anyone with a 20% or greater chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next decade, and as health policy increasingly strives to embed a culture of disease prevention in the country, the number of prescriptions in looks set to grow considerably.

However, while confirming their health benefits, a study by researchers from Nottingham University found that the use of statins, particularly at higher doses, is linked with the development to some serious conditions, such as moderate or serious liver dysfunction, acute kidney failure, moderate or serious myopathy, and cataracts.

Echoing the findings of previous studies, the researchers found that these side effects were similar across the range of statins on the market for most outcomes except liver dysfunction, where fluvastatin was found to be linked with the highest risk.

On the flip side, their research also showed no significant correlation between statin therapy and an increased risk of other serious conditions including Parkinson's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia and several cancers.

'Small minority'
The BHF was quick to stress that only “a small minority” of people experience serious side effects. June Davison, cardiac nurse at the charity, said: “We already know that a small number of people taking statins experience unwanted side effects. However for people with, or at high risk of heart disease, the benefits of statins far outweigh this risk”.

The researchers have called for additional studies to “develop utilities to individualise the risks so that patients at highest risk of adverse events can be monitored closely”, and claim findings from their own analysis may be used to inform guidelines on which type of statin to use and at what dose.

Higher risks of liver dysfunction, kidney failure, and potentially myopathy were dose related and, particularly as liver dysfunction is common and the other two are potentially fatal, “the findings would tend to support a policy of using lower doses of statins in people at high risk of the adverse event”, they conclude.