An estimated 20 million Americans take statins, making these cholesterol-lowering drugs the most widely prescribed class in the world. In coming years, these numbers are only expected to increase. In June 2011 the full patent for Pfizer’s blockbuster Lipitor (atorvastatin) will expire, making the drug significantly more affordable. And later this year the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute will release guidelines that could recommend statins for younger people who have no cholesterol issues–a move that could stave off cardiovascular disease later in life but also introduces questions about aggressively treating the healthy.
The current NCEP guidelines, published in 2001 and revised in 2004, recommend statins for heart disease patients with LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels greater than 70 milligrams per deciliter of blood and for people who have a moderately elevated risk of heart disease as well as LDL levels above 100 mg/dL. An expected NCEP move to lower the treatment bar this year would follow a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel’s vote in December 2009 to broaden the prescription base of AstraZeneca’s drug Crestor (rosuvastatin) to an additional 6.5 million lower-risk Americans. The FDA usually accepts the panel’s recommendations.