NIH Study Questions Treatment for Heart Disease

Recent studies have shown that coffee, rather than being harmful to your health, can reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Another recent study calls into question treating heart disease by using using a medication that raises good cholesterol in conjunction with one that lowers the bad. A National Institutes of Health study published on Thursday reports that taking the bad cholesterol-lowering statin simvastatin — also known under the brand name Zocor — in tandem with high dosages of Abbott Laboratories’ Niaspan did not prevent heart attacks and actually raised the likelihood of a stroke.

Yes, not exactly the results people seeking to lower their bad cholesterol and risk of heart disease were wanting to hear.

In the NIH study, 3,414 participants with heart and vascular disease were given 40 milligrams of Zocor and a placebo, or 40 milligrams of Zocor and Niaspan, which is an extended release form of niacin, a vitamin found to raise cholesterol. The participants  were to be followed for 32 months but researchers ended the trial 18 months early after finding “there was almost no chance taking Niaspan would prove beneficial,” says the New York Times.  Taking the Zocor (and other medications) did help to keep participants’ bad cholesterol levels relatively low.

Prior to the NIH study, Abbott Laboratories — which had $927 million in Niaspan sales last year — had said that there had been “no stroke safety signals in any clinical trials or post-marketing safety data.”

In view of the study’s results, the Food and Drug Administration says  that it is making “no new conclusions or recommendations regarding the use of niacin alone or in combination with simvastatin or other statins.” Researchers noted that patients should not stop taking Niaspan without talking to their doctors first.

Nonetheless, the NIH analysis has the potential to change how doctors treat heart disease as the New York Times notes:

Common wisdom has been that … patients should take a statin drug like Lipitor or Zocor to lower bad cholesterol and, in many cases, the vitamin niacin to raise their good cholesterol. But in the trial, niacin provided no benefit over simple statin therapy.

The results are part of a string of studies that suggest that what doctors thought they knew about cholesterol may be wrong. Studies that track patients over time have for decades shown that patients with higher levels of high-density lipoproteins (H.D.L., or good cholesterol) tend to live longer and have fewer heart problems than those with lower levels of this cholesterol.

Not surprisingly, doctors thought that if they could raise H.D.L. levels, their patients would benefit. So far, that assumption is not panning out. Nobody knows why.

The Los Angeles Times emphasizes that:

The study doesn’t question the conventional wisdom that raising HDL (good cholesterol) can reduce cardiovascular risk. Rather, it focused on the effects of using medication to simultaneously raise those levels while bringing down LDL levels. But given the unexpected results, some analysts expect more studies on the benefits of HDL.

An estimated 1 in 7 Americans have high cholesterol, the Los Angeles Times notes; the NIH calls high cholesterol a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which kills 800,000 people in the U.S. each year.

One has to wonder a bit, though, about what results the next study about heart disease and cholesterol might tell us.


Photo by sylvar.


Grace Adams
Grace Adams6 years ago

It is possible that both higher HDL and lower all cause mortality are both side effects of moderate exercise. It is also possible that that would explain why raising HDL levels by other means doesn't have much effect on heart disease.

gene p.
gene p6 years ago

gotta share this with my mom...

Joanne M.
Joanne M6 years ago

Interesting article and the comments are even more interesting.

susan h.
susan h6 years ago

Would save plenty of tax dollars to completely dismantle NIH and any other health or consumer protection agencies. They are either in collusion with big corporations or hindering their profit-making, so who needs them; corporate America has our best interest at heart, so let the free market rule.

Steve R.
Steve R6 years ago

The assumption is not panning out Ms Chew, because the cholestrol scam has covered up the real facts for the sake of drug company profits.

Cholestrol is NOT the problem. Cholestrol CANNOT adhere to healthy arteries and veins to become clots. Cholestrol can only adhere to damaged artery walls.

Artery walls are damaged by a high level of homocysteine in the body - caused by a lack of three very simple nutrients - Vitamin B12, B6 and Folic Acid.

But those things cannot be patented, can they - statins fear misinformation are far more profitable!

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Stress helps make cholesterol in the get relaxed and have will work better then helping the pharmaceutical companies more money.

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago

It's always difficult becasue there are always conflicting studies, reports, statistics and data to back up any side of the argument. But if it's information that can assist doctors in helping treat heart disease more effectively then that's a good thing.

Khat Bliss
Past Member 6 years ago

Vegtables, fruits, herbs and spices, get on board and leave the rest behind.

Bob T.
Bob T6 years ago

There is absolutely no relationship between high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. In fact, low cholesterol is more dangerous than high. Cholesterol has nothing to do with plaque in the arteries. That plaque is caused by a virus.

The drug companies know this but few doctors do. The mantra that high cholesterol is bad for you is an article of faith and most doctors just don't have the time to check it out.

Fifty percent of people who have heart problems have high cholesterol. That means that 50% do not. There is no causation there.

The drug companies have been looking like crazy for other diseases they can use to sell their statins. Statins are already being recommended for other diseases. It's a good money-maker and the drug companies don't want to lose it.

A friend of mine died from taking statins. His aunt went temporarily crazy on statins. She stopped taking them when she happened to read my friend's article on what they had done to him. Her symptoms cleared up immediately.

It's time we stopped thinking that the best way to treat disease systems is to use poisons. Drugs are toxic and any of them can kill you. For almost every disease system there are foods, vitamins, minerals, and herbs that can prevent or cure. There are also lifestyle changes that can keep us healthy.

Americans are lazy and they just want a magic pill to fix them. We are the most over-medicated people in the world and it is killing us.