Diet or Drugs: Do You Need Statins?

By Dean Ornish, MDFounder and President of the Non-Profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco For years, doctors have used statin drugs to help patients lower their cholesterol and prevent heart disease. However, many doctors, including Dr. Oz, disagree over how they should be used in clinical practice.

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There is a lot of controversy about whether treating otherwise-healthy people with statins is worth the risks and costs. On a recent show, Dr. Oz addressed the practice of some physicians prescribing statins because they have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that slow the aging process and because they may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases.

However, the risks of taking statins include myopathy (muscle damage and pain), kidney failure, liver damage, and an increased risk of diabetes.  Some studies question if you can get your cholesterol level too low with statins, which may interfere with memory and hormone production.

I argue that regularly taking statins isn’t necessary, and that one can improve his or her health with positive lifestyle changes.

Let’s discuss this from several perspectives:

Taking a statin is easy, and most people will do it; however, changing diet and lifestyle isn’t that difficult according to the data.  Studies have shown that adherence to statin drugs (all statins) is only about 30% after only 3-4 months – even if someone else is paying for it, and even if there are no side-effects.

In contrast, we are finding 85-90% adherence to our intensive program of comprehensive lifestyle changes after 12 months in 24 sites. We’ve trained in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska – three of the more challenging parts of the country (where gravy is a beverage).  We have data on over 4,000 patients who have gone through our lifestyle program there.

Why? Because statins are fear-based: Take this pill that won’t make you feel better (and may make you feel worse if you develop a myopathy or liver damage) to prevent something really awful like a heart attack or a stroke many years down the road that you don’t want to think about, so you don’t.

However, when people make comprehensive lifestyle changes, they generally feel so much better – it reframes the reason for changing from a fear of dying to a joy of living. Unlike fear, joy and feeling good are sustainable motivators. 

Article written by Dean Ornish, MD
Founder and President, Preventive Medicine Research Institute Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San...