Almost half of Americans ages 40 to 75 and nearly all men over 60 qualify to consider cholesterol-lowering statin drugs under new heart disease prevention guidelines, an analysis concludes.
It's the first independent look at the impact of the guidelines issued in November and shows how dramatically they shift more people toward treatment. Supporters say they reveal the true scope of heart risks in America. Critics have said the guidelines overreach by suggesting medications such as Zocor and Lipitor for such a broad swath of the population.
"We wanted to be really objective and just quantify what the guidelines do, and not get into a discussion about whether they are correct," said Michael Pencina, the Duke University biostatistician who led the analysis. It was published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.
Under the new guidelines, 56 million Americans ages 40 to 75 are eligible to consider a statin; 43 million were under the old advice. Both numbers include 25 million people taking statins now. "That is striking ... eye-opening," Dr. Daniel Rader of the University of Pennsylvania said of the new estimate.
But since too few people use statins now, the advice "has the potential to do much more good than harm," said Rader, a cardiologist who had no role in writing the guidelines.
Nearly half a million additional heart attacks and strokes could be prevented over 10 years if statin use was expanded as the guidelines recommend, the study estimates.
The guidelines, developed by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology at the request of the federal government, were a big change. They give a new formula for estimating risk that includes blood pressure, smoking status and many factors besides the level of LDL or "bad" cholesterol, the main focus in the past.
For the first time, the guidelines are personalized for men and women and blacks and whites, and they take aim at strokes, not just heart attacks.