Statin drugs are a type of medicine taken by millions to lower cholesterol. They are especially designed to lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, also known as "bad cholesterol." In addition to lowering LDL, statin drugs can raise HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. HDL is often referred to as "good cholesterol" because it can clear LDL before it builds up in the body.
Statins are effective in reducing deaths from heart attacks and strokes in high-risk patients. There is an on-going debate about whether statins should be given to lower risk patients. High LDL cholesterol levels are a significant contributor to coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is caused by the hardening of arteries over time, and it is believed that the slow build-up of LDL cholesterol inside the arteries is what causes this hardening. By lowering bad cholesterol levels, statins also help reduce the risk of heart disease, and may be prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke-related death in people with high risk for or known CAD.
Introduced in the 1980s, statin use soared in the 1990s and 2000s when they became the first widely used preventative medicines. Millions of people take them every day, all over the world. There has been controversy about whether statins should be used for prevention, but studies have shown their benefits. A lipid profile is a standard part of blood work ordered in a standard physical. The results of the lipid profile - the levels of LDL, HDL, total cholesterol, and triglycerides - along with other details about the patient (e.g. age, overall health) go into the doctor’s decision about whether to prescribe a statin drug.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death. Study after study by scientists and doctors have shown that most men and many women over 40 could benefit from regular statin usage. (Whether the benefits outweigh the downsides is another question.) These aren't necessarily people with "high" cholesterol. No matter what your cholesterol is, it could probably be lower if you took statins. Coronary events are highly correlated with the level of LDL cholesterol.
An estimated 32 million Americans take statin drugs. Both academic studies and anecdotal evidence from doctors indicate that a larger percentage of patients who start on statins stop within 6 months. The reasons for this may be the high cost of the drugs or the fact the benefits of treatment are not immediately obvious (people don't see visible differences when they take the medicine, so conclude it does nothing.)
With the widespread availability of generic statin medications and the success of the drugs in lowering cardiovascular disease incidence, statin usage is likely to increase. It is argued that statins are one of the most important inventions of recent times.
Statins are effective for both men and women; they lower cholesterol in all groups, including those who have previous cardiovascular problems and those who do not. Analysis after analysis of patient data from tens of thousands of statin users from different countries around the world has found these drugs to really work. And to be generally safe. While there are side effects associated with them, the cost-benefit calculation comes down on the side of showing these drugs are awesome, time and time again.
Indeed, recent analysis has found that early reports of the benefits of statins were understated and they are even better than previously believed. Whether statins should be used for primary prevention and be distributed widely to those without other risk factors, is a matter of much discussion and debate.