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Women and statins: When the drugs may not make sense

Last reviewed: June 2010
A woman speaking to her doctor
For some women with a very low risk for heart disease, the benefit of statins should be weighed against the potential harm.

In the U.S., about 13.5 percent of women 45 to 64 take a statin medication to reduce their cholesterol, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Altoprev, Mevacor, and generic), pravastatin (Pravachol and generic), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and simvastatin (Zocor and generic). The assumption is that it will cut their risk of coronary artery disease and premature death. About 33 percent of women 65 and older take one for the same reason. Of those, estimates indicate that perhaps one million women 65 to 74—and potentially many more from 45 to 64—might want to take a closer look into whether or not a statin drug is a good choice.

There has been an almost 10-fold increase in the use of statins in the U.S. over the past decade by adults 45 years of age and older. Not surprisingly, drugs to lower cholesterol were the most popular medications in the U.S. in 2009. Last year more than $14 billion was spent on them, according to IMS Health. (One drug alone, Lipitor, had $7.5 billion in sales in 2009.)

For women with heart disease, using statin drugs reduces the chance they'll have a heart attack. But for some women—those who only have elevated LDL (or "bad" cholesterol levels) with a very low risk for cardiovascular disease—the benefit of statins should be weighed against the potential harm from taking them.

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