Does research kill?

Last week the ABC TV program Catalyst went to air despite an attempt by the Heart Foundation to stop its broadcast. It was the second part of a two-part episode on cholesterol, whether it is a coronary risk factor and whether the use of statins can actually prevent your likelihood of having a heart attack. The TV program suggested that the effectiveness of statins has been largely overstated. It has since been reported that some viewers have decided to stop the use of their medication in the belief that it is not going to affect their cholesterol levels, despite a warning at the beginning of the program that it is important not to alter medication without first seeking the advise of your GP.

In Monday’s Health Report on ABC Radio National, Dr. Norman Swan further explored this vexatious issue, presenting a more positive view of statins and their role. Not so well explained was the role that losing weight and increasing exercise has to play in reducing cholesterol and related heart attack risks.

View the two-part program

Hear Dr. Norman Swan’s program

Opinion: Is health research dangerous?

I don’t know about you, but I am finding the increasing amount of health research confusing, contradictory and potentially downright dangerous. The most recent controversy surrounding the statins is a case in point. It seems that (according to Catalyst) they are not as good as we were told. But how do we/can we truly know? Next, the national broadcaster, but this time on radio, suggests that the TV show has got it wrong. Over the years we have been told that coffee is good for us, bad for us. Then bacon is good for us, bad for us. That butter is good for us, bad for us. And that sun is good for us, bad for us. Yes, it can happen that medication which has previously been described as efficacious is now of no use whatsoever. But following research to the letter – i.e. confusing it with health advice from a professional who knows your particular circumstances – can only end in tears. It is difficult when you are on a course of medication to be told that perhaps that medication is not really very useful. But to simply stop taking your tablets is both foolish and extreme. Over time it is only reasonable that some medications will be replaced by those that are more effective. But it is important to fully understand the actual level of effectiveness, your own risk factors and how much impact medication might be expected to have. And this comes back to talking to a health professional who considers your particular circumstances, the many different types of statin medications, and what will work best for you both in the short term and longer term. Ultimately, however, we are all responsible for our own health and it is up to us to keep talking with our GP about what we can do to improve our situation – yes, better nutrition and more exercise are normally part of the story – and whether medical advances mean our medication should be reviewed and changed. As always, it’s not someone else’s job, it’s yours!

What do you think? Is health research more dangerous than helpful? Should we all just stick to dialogue with our GPs and ignore the research updates entirely?

Written by Kaye Fallick