Wondering about the statin wonderdrug
Statins lower cholesterol while repairing damage to our veins. But John Masterson experienced some side effects when he started taking the medication
If you are male and over 50, the chances are you have had the "you should be on statins" conversation. This will be because most of us have higher cholesterol than is compatible with a long life and a healthy heart, with our blood being pumped effortlessly through sparklingly clean veins.
The invention of statins changed everything and study after study showed that they are a very effective protection against heart attacks. Statins are a wonder drug that make cholesterol levels drop while simultaneously repairing damage to our veins. Who would say no to that?
Well, me, for a long time. Athletes like Mark Spitz, who had high cholesterol, extolled the virtues of the drug, and he looked in pretty good shape.
But my mother was a nurse and she was very sparing in her use of drugs. She would have approved of the Bill Clinton approach, which was to go vegan after his bypass operation.
She was always going on about prescription drugs being overused and was way ahead of her time. I cannot imagine her reaction to going into hospital and picking up MRSA. She would have gone ballistic. Consequently, I have never been on any drugs other than a five-day course of antibiotics very occasionally when I was forced to consult a doctor.
More and more of my friends were telling me they were on statins, and by and large, they were not telling me about any problems.
A lot of people referred to some muscle pain. But the consensus was that this was not a lot to put up with in return for the protection from serious illness.
So whenever I went for a check up and blood test I was armed with all of the anti-statin arguments because I just did not want to take a drug for the rest of my life. A silly prejudice, maybe, but I was comfortable with it.
More than one GP had advanced the statin argument to me but most recently, after a cholesterol reading of 7.4, the medic across the table from me gave me a good lecture. I pleaded for one more chance to change my diet, which wasn't particularly bad. He relented. Next visit I was delighted to be down to 6.8. He wasn't particularly impressed.
"OK," he said, "I won't insist on the statins but I recommend them. But will you do one thing for me? Will you go to a cardiologist and get a stress test and we will talk again after that?"
No problem. I turned up for the stress test in fine form. It was the end of summer, when I am at my fittest. I run five miles a few times a week in the good weather and even verge on enjoying it. The nurse was very pleasant and told me that there was no need to be embarrassed if I couldn't complete the test. Apparently, a lot of people find it tough.
I began to fear that I would collapse on the treadmill. I need not have worried. I had barely broken a sweat when I was told the ordeal was over.
People complain that doctors don't spend much time with patients. Well, this one did. He went through every heartbeat on my graph, explaining what he was looking for, before pronouncing my ticker in great shape.
Then he turned to the 6.8 cholesterol reading. I may have been prepared, but he was more prepared and he pulled one scientific paper after another from the shelves, and 30 minutes later I had agreed to give a particular drug a try at the lowest dose the pill came in.
For three weeks the medication never crossed my mind. I just pressed the blister pack and took the pill.
Then I gradually got a pain in my left arm. I began to drive the car with my arm on the armrest. If I turned over in my sleep the pain woke me. I was losing all strength in that arm. I rang the doctor, who said to cut down to two tablets a week immediately, which I did. Within 10 days the pain had vanished.
And that was the beginning of my troubles because, so relieved was I that I was free of this pain, that I was oblivious to the changes in my mood and behaviour that were taking place. By the time I copped on, one of my friends told me that a few of 'the family', our loose group of Kilkenny friends, had got together and discussed who was going to tell me that I had become distinctly odd.
Over the weeks I had gone about my business normally. I did notice an occasional dizzy spell but I just put that down to working fairly hard.
One day on my morning radio show I was chatting with Dr Eddie Murphy, who is one of my favourite guests because he has a particularly good grasp of psychology and a wealth of experience.
During the commercial break, we were having an idle 'how are things' conversation when I found myself saying, "I have never felt worse. I don't get depressed, but for the last while I have just been going through the motions."
We continued our on-air chat and, the item over, he said goodbye and suggested a chat later in the week.
That night, I relayed this conversation to a friend to be told that they had thought there was something wrong with me for about two months.
Something in my brain clicked and I recalled that the doctors I'd seen had advised me of various potential side effects, which I had completely forgotten about, perhaps even ignored. I Googled the drug I was still taking twice a week.
Side effects included dizziness. Yes. Then there was a mention of an odd persistent cough. It had been driving me mad. There was mention of occasional chest pains. I immediately recalled the many times I had said that I thought these things were supposed to stop heart attacks and it would be a bit ironic to have one now. And then depression.
I realised I had got into the habit of coming home and pouring a drink immediately to feel better. Not my weekday style. I remembered a night when I was in company and drank with urgency, was rude to a good friend, and did not remember it when I was told about it. That is not my style either.
I stopped taking the drug that night. Over a period of about two weeks I began to feel again. I had been numb. I got no joy from good things and no pain from the less pleasant aspects of life. I had been functioning, but turned off. I spoke to everyone in my office, who all said they had noticed that I had been very low but, to my relief, they all agreed that I had not made any particularly stupid drug- influenced decisions.
It was time to go back and get my regular blood test. My cholesterol was now down to 5.8. The doctor listened to my saga with interest. And, I think, some surprise. He did not suggest a resumption of a different statin. He suggested I watch my diet and set up a new appointment.
I now have eight weeks to contemplate the joys of a drug-free heart attack, or to try a different variety of this wonder drug.
John Masterson presents KCLRLIVE from 10 to 12 each weekday morning on KCLR96FM
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