Over the past two weeks the ABC’s Catalyst program has run a special series under the rubric The Heart of the Matter calling into question the importance of cholesterol as a risk factor for heart disease with Dr. Maryanne Demasi leading the charge. This is how she described the programs:
In the first episode of this two part edition of Catalyst, I investigate the science behind the long established view that saturated fat causes heart disease by raising cholesterol.
In the second episode, I cut through the hype surrounding cholesterol lowering drugs and reveal the tactics used by Big Pharma to make the drugs to lower cholesterol appear more effective than they seem to be.
In Heart of the Matter, I investigate whether the role of saturated fat and cholesterol in heart disease is one of the biggest myths in medical history.
Go here for transcripts and videos:
First up it must be said that Dr Demasi is not just a journalist. She has a PhD in medical research from the University of Adelaide and worked for a decade as a research scientist specialising in rheumatoid arthritis research at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
I had a triple bypass back in 2000 and have taken statins ever since as well as 100mg aspirin daily and medicine to lower my blood pressure. Except on rare occasions saturated fats do not pass my lips.
Dr Norman Swan told Fran Kelly that his wife had sat next to someone on a plane who had been taking statins for familial high cholesterol levels. After seeing the program he said he had dropped the drugs and was going to tuck into the cream cheese.
To this viewer, such a response would be warranted on the basis of the evidence put forward in the programs. I’m a cautious person, however, so my intention was to stay on course, but was going to consult my GP who I see every four to six weeks. I expected her to advise me to change nothing until I next see my cardiologist in March next year.
Norman Swan was angry. He said people will die as a result of the program.
Then on RN’s Health Report Swan interviewed Professor Peter Clifton, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow and Professor of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, Sansom Institute, University of South Australia. Clifton gave all the information you’d ever want to hear, I thought. It included this statement:
lowering LDL is the most powerful thing you can do to reduce your heart attack risk, but it doesn’t remove it completely, it only removes it by a third unfortunately.
Asked directly what he thought of the program Clifton said he was appalled because it was completely unbalanced.
Clifton’s advice was to stay on statins if you are on them, but if you are worried go to your doctor, calculate your risk factor, taking all components into account – diet, exercise, gender, smoking, life stresses and whatever – and then make a decision. Certainly some people experience deleterious side-effects, but Clifton thought these were over-emphasised.
So now I’m not going to raise the issue when I see my GP. I’m betting she’ll raise it with me. Statins have never been represented to me as a magic bullet, just one measure among many to give yourself a better chance.
Along the way Professor Emily Banks, chair of the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Medicines, wanted the second program canned after seeing the first.
Dr Lyn Roberts, CEO of the National Heart Foundation, said the organisation was ‘shocked’ at the ABC decision to run the Catalyst program on statins.
RN’s PM program caught up with Dr Demasi, who was holding her ground. She clearly supports the notion that people should consult their own doctor, but the program did downplay the role of cholesterol as a driver of heart disease to the point of irrelevance. It did also suggest that statins will do actual harm beyond mere side-effects. And one expert consulted suggested that as few as one or two out of every hundred might obtain some benefits.