Triangle residents are fortunate to have access to not one but two academic medical centers on the cutting edge of research to improve the health of people across the globe. Unfortunately, last weekend the area’s loudest health-related message came not from the world-class researchers at Duke or UNC but from Joe and Terry Graedon’s program, the People’s Pharmacy.
The show, “The truth about statins and heart disease,” aired on WUNC on July 30 and exported dangerous messages about the risks of statins and the “truth” about cholesterol across the nation.
The show started with a balanced perspective on statins and the new cholesterol guidelines from Dr. Steve Nissen, a cardiologist and world expert in cardiovascular disease. He discussed the risks and benefits of statins and emphasized the importance of statins to lower risk of heart events in high risk groups. Nissen is a nationally recognized expert in heart disease, cholesterol and statins and is the chair of cardiovascular medicine at Cleveland Clinic. Unfortunately, his balanced perspective lent an air of credibility to the subsequent guest, Dr. David Diamond, who made numerous dangerous claims about cholesterol and heart disease.
Diamond is not a cardiologist; he is a Ph.D. researcher focused on post-traumatic stress disorder. Ironically, Diamond, in criticizing early (flawed) research on the link between dietary fat and heart disease, criticized the scientist who conducted those studies as he “had no expertise whatsoever in nutrition or heart disease . . . and in fact he was completely wrong about much of his assertions.” Diamond, himself having no expertise in heart disease, went on to make multiple false claims including that people with high cholesterol are healthier than people with low cholesterol, that cholesterol does not cause heart disease, that statins have a trivial effect on heart disease and that alternative therapies like vitamin K2, chocolate or eating butter may reduce heart disease more than statins.
The Graedons offered no air time for Nissen to respond to Diamond’s claims, leaving his assertions unchallenged. Here are the facts: Decades of medical research show that people with high LDL cholesterol are at higher risk of heart disease. Cholesterol is the main component of the plaque that forms in the arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes. In high-risk adults, including those with diabetes and people with prior heart attacks, statins can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events between 20 and 30 percent. Studies of hundreds of thousands of adults confirm the safety of statins. There is no evidence that using alternative therapies like vitamin K2 or dark chocolate or increased butter consumption can improve heart disease risk.
Diamond ended the program suggesting that financial motivations lead to overprescribing. Yet the majority of statin prescriptions prescribed at Duke are generic and available for $4 at many local pharmacies. As a cardiologist, I receive no financial benefit for prescribing statins – I prescribe them because I want to help prevent heart attacks in my patients.
As a researcher focused on cardiovascular disease prevention, I am greatly concerned about the effect of the People’s Pharmacy on the health of WUNC’s listeners. Two studies have shown that negative news stories about statins are associated with higher rates of statin discontinuation. One of those studies showed that those who discontinued statin therapy were 26 percent more likely to have a repeat heart attack than those who stayed on therapy.
The day after the program aired, I experienced firsthand how misinformation from radio programs like the People’s Pharmacy can adversely affect my patients’ health. While I was doing rounds at Duke Hospital on the inpatient cardiology service, three of my patients questioned the importance of their statins. One patient declined therapy, specifically quoting misinformation heard on the People’s Pharmacy. So rather than spending my time talking about heart health, I spent my time debunking myths. I wondered how many other people with recent heart attacks or strokes who are benefiting from statins heard the program and decided to stop.
The People’s Pharmacy reaches thousands of Triangle residents every week. WUNC did a disservice to its listeners by presenting misinformation as fact, potentially leading people to make choices regarding their diet, cholesterol or medication that will increase their chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Public radio listeners, donors and health care providers in the City of Medicine and the Triangle should demand more from our public radio programming.
Ann Marie Navar, M.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of medicine, Division of Cardiology, at Duke University Medical Center.