Disease Creep or Good Medical Practice?
The American Heart Association has been monitoring deaths due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) in the U.S. for over a century. While the CVD death rate grew steadily for most of the 20th century, it leveled off and then began to drop somewhat over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, CVD is still the leading cause of death in the U.S. with 600,000 people dying annually, which accounts for more than 25% of all deaths in the country. The direct costs associated with treating heart disease amount to over $80 billion/year and indirect costs attributed to loss of productivity exceed $60 billion/year.
Despite the progress made in moderating the CVD death rate, it is still a major disease. Furthermore, as the obesity epidemic continues in the U.S., recent headway is liable to be counteracted by the increase in obesity, which is already resulting into a concomitant increase in type 2 diabetes, a precursor to heart disease. Even with improvements in diagnosis and treatment, better understanding of risk factors, reductions in smoking, etc., CVD is going to remain a major health problem for decades.
Diet and exercise are keys to staying healthy, not just to ward off heart disease and diabetes but other diseases as well. Yet, there are times when medical treatment becomes a necessary add-on to preventing heart attacks and strokes. It is not a coincidence that the lowering of CVD deaths occured at the advent of statins such as Zocor (simvastatin) and Lipitor (atorvastatin), drugs that lower LDL cholesterol which is a key factor in the formation of atherosclerosis. These medicines have been shown to be both effective and safe for long-term use.
Thus, it is stunning to see an essay like Jeanne Lenzer’s “Disease Creep: How we’re fooled into using more medicine than we need” (December 22, 2011). Lenzer’s views can be summarized in her quote below:
“Elevated cholesterol is not a disease. It doesn’t cause symptoms. It is a risk factor. People with high cholesterol levels are somewhat more likely to develop a heart attack or stroke, but they are at far less risk than individuals who already have cardiovascular disease. This is the definition of disease creep: when pre-conditions or risk-factors are treated as if they are the same as the actual disease state.”
In Lenzer’s utopia, you wouldn’t get a statin until AFTER you have already had a heart attack. The problem is that many first heart attacks are fatal – you don’t get a second chance to go on statin therapy then. She is correct in saying that just having high cholesterol alone does not justify taking a statin to prevent a heart attack or stroke. But CVD risk factors also include male sex, older age, family history of heart disease, post-menopause, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and stress. If a patient presents to a physician with multiple risk factors and if diet and exercise have not been effective in lowering cholesterol levels to those recommended by the American Heart Association, that physician would be remiss if the patient wasn’t prescribed a statin. Waiting for a patient to first have a heart attack or stroke before providing such treatment would be irresponsible.
Lenzen implies in her article that the prophylactic use of statins may only prevent 1 in 50 heart attacks. I don’t necessarily agree with that number, but let’s say that is correct. There are 785,000 first heart attacks/year in the U.S. Even employing Lenzen’s assumptions, the use of statins in the overall treatment paradigm of patients with multiple CVD risk factors would prevent thousands of heart attacks or strokes annually. Now that the most-studied statins like simvastatin and atorvastatin are generic, it would seem like the cost-benefit of statin use to prevent first heart attacks is non-controversial. This isn’t “Disease Creep” – it is simply good medical practice.