Behind the headlines

Are negative statins stories leading to more deaths?


We look at media coverage of a story suggesting that media coverage about statins could lead to more deaths from heart disease.

Could news reports increase the risk of people dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and heart attack by causing them to stop taking statins? A new study by Danish scientists suggests this is the case.

Almost 700,000 people were monitored over a five-year period to see if the number  who stopped taking statins within the first three months correlated with attitudes expressed in the media. They found that negative news correlated with an increase of almost 10 per cent halting their medication. 

Statins are the most widely prescribed medication in the UK, and are used to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as reduce risk of a heart attack or stroke
in people who already have cardiovascular disease.

Dr Børge Grønne Nordestgaard, who co-authored the study, said: “People who stop statins early have a 26% increased  risk of a heart attack and an 18% increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.”

Media reaction

The story received widespread newspaper coverage, including articles in The Times, The Mirror and the Daily Mail. Opinions on the study were mixed. The first two reported the research without expressing any personal opinion. However, the Mail dismissed the research with its headline: “Ignore statins scare stories – says expert paid by drug firms: Top professor under fire for pushing benefits of the drugs while pocketing thousands.” 

BHF-funded research has provided very strong and clear evidence that statins reduce the risk of someone dying from or being disabled by a heart attack or stroke

Dr Nordestgaard had declared that the study was funded by drug manufacturers that sell statins.He also declared that he personally had received £5,000 for giving lectures on the subject and advising two of the largest manufacturers of statins.

Strengths and weaknesses

The research was welcomed by some experts. Jane Armitage, Professor of Clinical Trials and Epidemiology & Honorary Consultant in Public Health Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: “This study from Denmark illustrates the association between negative stories in the media about statins and people stopping their prescribed statins. Journalists should take note. Given the extensive body of high-quality evidence from randomised studies showing that statins safely reduce the chances of heart attacks and strokes it is important that doctors use the best available evidence when deciding to offer a statin to their patient.”

The study was limited in that it only proved a correlation between negative press and people discontinuing the medication, rather than a direct relation  – so we don’t know that the negative press had ‘caused’ them  to stop taking the medicine. 

Professor Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the strengths of the study were the complete data and large numbers of study participants. “A number of the comparisons made, because they are based on very large numbers [of study participants], have very little statistical uncertainty, even though the differences are not large,” he said.

He added: “The weaknesses of the study are that it looks at trends over time that may have many factors contributing to reasons for having another prescription but focuses on just a few.”

What we say

Professor Peter Weissberg, former Medical Director of the BHF, said: “This interesting study raises important questions about how people make decisions that affect their health and the consequences of those decisions. It is important for patients that their doctors base their advice on objective interpretation of the best evidence available rather than biased reports in the lay and medical press.

"Everyone is influenced to a certain degree by the media and this study emphasises why it is important that medical professionals, in particular, should be guided by the scientific evidence rather than opinion. Thanks to donations from the UK public, BHF-funded research has provided very strong and clear evidence that statins reduce the risk of someone dying from or being disabled by a heart attack or stroke.”

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