MEDICINES that lower cholesterol – hailed as wonder-drugs in the battle against heart disease – may be doing more harm than good to otherwise healthy people.
Statins are taken by more than 250,000 Irish people to help lower "bad cholesterol", a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
However, a review by one of the country's leading vascular surgeons has found a lack of evidence to show that statins should be given as a means of prevention to healthy people who have high cholesterol but no heart disease.
Sherif Sultan, of University College Hospital in Galway, warned that statin use can increase the risk of diabetes, cataracts and male impotence.
"They can also significantly increase the risk of cancer and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease in the elderly, along with a myriad of infectious diseases," he said.
Mr Sultan said there were benefits in prescribing some dosages of statins for certain patients already diagnosed with heart disease or who had a history of heart attack or stroke.
However, otherwise healthy people with high cholesterol would do better losing weight, improving their diet, taking exercise and stopping smoking to avoid heart disease.
Mr Sultan and his colleague Niamh Hynes based their findings on a review of studies involving nearly 400,000 patients published in the 'Journal of Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases'.
He said his findings showed major adverse effects had been under-reported, which he said was a "scientific farce".
There is ample evidence to show statins increase cardiovascular risk in women, patients with diabetes and the young.
Too many doctors had fallen into the marketing trap behind the over-selling of statins and ignored side-effects linked to different doses, said Mr Sultan.
Other potential side-effects include inflammation of the liver, muscle and joint pain and insomnia.
Patients for whom Mr Sultan makes an exception are those with high cholesterol because of an inherited faulty gene which cannot be reduced by lifestyle changes. In that case, he would prescribe a statin.
He advises his own patients to adjust their lifestyle and to exercise regularly, go off wheat, increase their intake of greens, drink three litres of water a day and try not to eat after their evening meal.
Around 250,000 prescriptions for statins are written every month, and they account for 8pc of the HSE's €1.7bn annual drugs spend.
The Irish Medicines Board has received 59 reports of suspected adverse reactions to statins since the start of 2012.
Dr Angie Brown, the medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation, said the mainstay of preventing heart disease involved lifestyle changes including stopping smoking, being active, having a healthy weight and getting blood pressure and cholesterol checked.
"In some individuals with a significant risk of developing cardiovascular disease or with very high cholesterol levels, it may not be possible to reduce levels sufficiently with lifestyle change alone, and in these people the advice is to start a cholesterol-reducing tablet," she said.