Statins 'vastly superior' to supplements to cut heart attack risk, study finds : Shots - Health News Millions of people are prescribed statins to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, but many would rather take supplements instead. A new study shows statins are much more effective.

Statins vs. supplements: New study finds one is 'vastly superior' to cut cholesterol

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Dietary supplements are, of course, very popular supplements, like fish oil, which allegedly helps your heart. Doctors want to know if they're really effective, and a new study tries to find out. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on the new study released last night at the American Heart Association conference.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: As sales of supplements have increased, doctors see a trend. Patients who've been advised to take prescription medications to lower their cholesterol don't always follow the advice. Dr. Luke Laffin, a preventive cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, says some patients opt instead for over-the-counter supplements, such as fish oil, omega 3s or red yeast rice.

LUKE LAFFIN: Oftentimes, these supplements are marketed as, quote-unquote, "natural" ways to lower your cholesterol or for cholesterol management.

AUBREY: But Laffin says there's not much evidence to back this up. So he and his colleagues designed a clinical trial to compare prescription statin medications to supplements. They recruited adults who had elevated LDL cholesterol - that's the bad cholesterol. Some took a 5 mg daily dose of rosuvastatin, a statin that is marketed under the brand name Crestor, for 28 days. Others were given supplements, including fish oil, cinnamon, garlic, turmeric, plant sterols or red yeast rice, for the same period.

LAFFIN: So what we found was that the low-dose statins reduced LDL cholesterol over the time period of the trial by 38%, which was vastly superior to placebo and any of the six supplements studied.

AUBREY: Dr. Laffin says a 38% reduction is enough to significantly lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. His collaborator, Dr. Steven Nissen, also of Cleveland Clinic, says the results of the study are very clear.

STEVEN NISSEN: Clearly, statins do what they're intended to do. Supplements do not do what they are intended to do. They do not promote heart health. They do not improve levels of the bad cholesterol.

AUBREY: The new findings are published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study was funded by AstraZeneca, the maker of Crestor, though Nissen and his colleagues worked independently on the study and the analysis. And their conclusions fit with a body of evidence showing statin medications work really well. Here's cardiologist Michael Honigberg of Massachusetts General Hospital. He was not involved in this new research and says he's not surprised by the findings.

MICHAEL HONIGBERG: Statins are the most effective heart attack and stroke prevention drug that we have really ever seen. They've been studied in hundreds of thousands of patients.

AUBREY: And shown to be very safe, he says. But what's important to know is that not everyone who has higher-than-ideal cholesterol numbers needs to be on a statin. Doctors use a risk calculator that takes into account age, race, blood pressure, smoking status and other factors to help determine this. Honigberg says, for patients who are not good candidates for statins, some ask whether supplements are a good option. But he says what you eat is more important.

HONIGBERG: I tell my patients to save their money and instead spend that money on eating heart healthy, high-quality food. The data are better for health benefits of a heart healthy diet than they are for spending money on supplements.

AUBREY: He spends a lot of time talking to patients about which diets are best, and one he recommends is a Mediterranean pattern of eating that includes lots of healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, a source of omega-3s.

HONIGBERG: I think a formulation that we perhaps don't use enough is that food is medicine.

AUBREY: When it comes to preventing heart disease, he says a healthy diet is key.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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