Ahead of the Curve
Physicians are often castigated for not keeping up with and following the latest recommendations for clinical care. The reality of innumerable "guidelines" issued by countless specialty societies and other entities (cough*federal government*cough) that feel empowered to do so is that just keeping track of all of them can be a full time job. Still, there have been some major sea changes over the years as good science comes up with some pretty definitive findings. I'm referring specifically to broad brush guidelines about the treatment of that ubiquitous triad of high blood pressure, diabetes and LDL cholesterol.
Those of us who have been practicing for a few decades now recall that recommended goals for blood pressure, blood glucose, and lipid levels have tended to shift ever downwards over the years. When I was in training, the threshold definition for hypertension was a BP measurement of 140/90. Anything below that was fine; above it required treatment. Some of the older attendings even scoffed at that, recalling when an acceptable systolic blood pressure was "100 + age", a nod to the fact that blood pressure tends to increase with age, making isolated systolic hypertension common in the elderly. Diabetes outcomes seem to improve with lower blood glucose levels, and the advent of statin medications for lowering cholesterol has truly revolutionized lipid management. Further, growing evidence seems to support the lowering of all three parameters to decrease cardiovascular risk.
Now it seems that among patients with stroke and LDL levels already under 100 -- with or without statins -- those ON the statin lipid-lowering meds had better oucomes. Current guidelines for use of these drugs takes into account how many cardiovascular risk factors a patient has aside from the cholesterol reading. The greater the number of risk factors, the lower the threshold for starting cholesterol meds. Here's the thing: those numbers have also been trending downwards as the accumulating research points towards better outcomes for patients who take statins.
Here's where I'm going with this: whether or not to offer statins to non-diabetic non-smoking patients with controlled hypertension and moderately elevated LDL cholesterol levels.
According to current formal recommendations, a patient like that would not qualify for statins unless the LDL was over 160. At this time, that is. Every time those guidelines have been revised, it's been in the direction of starting statins at lower and lower levels of LDL. What if 10 years from now we have the data to support lowering LDL cholesterol to at least 130 in everyone? What if it turns out that taking a statin confers added protection against macrovascular events (stroke and heart attack) whatever level of LDL reduction is achieved (ie, goal or no goal)?
It sure looks like this is the way things are headed to me, and I would like my patients to have the benefit of an extra 10 years -- or however long it is until the jury returns -- of cardiovascular protection. Statins are now cheap ($40.00 a year) and extremely well-tolerated, with very rare adverse reactions that are easily reversed with stopping the drug. There just doesn't seem to be much of a downside to wider statin use, and the distinct possibility of a significant advantage.
Believe me, I am not a pill pusher. The more favorable evidence that accumulates for the damn statins, the more pissed off I get. The last thing I want is to be writing more drugs. Still, it's getting harder to deny my patients the benefits implied by the old "better living through chemistry" line.
The bottom line is that I have gingerly begun offering cholesterol-lowering meds to more of my patients, complete with extensive counseling and discussion (much like that above.) I'm curious about what other clinicians are doing, and how they feel about trying to get ahead of the curve a bit with primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.