Are Statins an Excuse for Unhealthy Eating?

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Twenty-five-year-old Brittney Lipsett has had high cholesterol since she was 13 years old. Her parents, aunts and uncles on both sides of family take statins to control their high cholesterol, and about a year and a half ago, Lipsett decided to join them and go on a statin too.

Previously, Lipsett had tried to lower her cholesterol through diet.

"I tried to do the diet," said Lipsett, a marketing coordinator from New Haven, Conn. "I ate all organic. It did help me a little bit. My LDL [the bad cholesterol] went down to the 220 range, but then I found out I was allergic to wheat and gluten, and I couldn't just eat vegetables and fish all day."

When her numbers climbed up again, she started on a statin. And it worked. "My most recent tests show my lowest numbers ever, at 205," she said.

But as her cholesterol dropped, so too did her healthy lifestyle.

"Since then, I haven't exercised or been watching my diet.

"I tend to go for foods such as meat or shellfish that are very high in cholesterol," said Lipsett. "I love to eat, so it makes it difficult."

Health, United States, 2010

While throwing dietary caution to the wind, Lipsett joined the millions of Americans who also take statins for high cholesterol, and Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its 34th annual report titled "Health, United States, 2010." The CDC found that adults age 45 and older increased their statin use 10-fold, from 2 percent between 1988 and 1994, to 25 percent between 2005 and 2008.

And, with news that pleased many heart doctors, deaths associated with heart disease declined by 28 percent from 1999 to 2007.

"The positive news is that there is a big benefit of taking the statins as has been seen with the mortality data," said Dr. Christopher Cannon, a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "It's a huge win.

"Of note, the U.K. announced a few months ago a significant reduction in mortality rates that was linked to better use of cardiovascular medications, including statins," said Cannon.

High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, and doctors often suggest using such cholesterol-lowering medications as Lipitor and Crestor. As many as 48 million U.S. adults have high levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol.

Healthy with High Cholesterol

But contrary to popular belief, healthy, young people can have high cholesterol, alongside those who are overweight and older.

"It's very common to see healthy people with high cholesterol," said Cannon.

Many believe that putting people on statins helps them stay healthy. But how bad is it when these people believe their new, low cholesterol levels are an invitation to eat unhealthy food?

Despite general health guidelines, doctors say it's OK to cheat once in a while when taking a statin for high cholesterol.

"It's probably way better to be eating one extra steak a week than not to take the statin," said Cannon. "I often recommend moderation, and there's probably more benefit than harm that you might be able to cheat a little more [on a statin]."

Cannon said that while the desire to eat "badly" comes from many different messages in the culture, it is a misconception to believe that every person can lower his or her cholesterol just by exercising and eating right. There is a heavy genetic component to high cholesterol, and no matter how fit, some people can't escape their genes.

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