Many drugs unproven in preventing heart attacks, strokes, death

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Dale Petrie had a heart attack 18 months ago. It was clear he needed a cholesterol medicine to try to prevent another one. So he went on a statin.

"Everything's been good. No pain, no nothing. I feel like I'm 39 again," says Dale.

Research has proven that statins such as simvastatin and atorvastatin prevent heart attacks, strokes and death. But what about other drugs often prescribed along with statins to raise good cholesterol or lower triglycerides? Fibrate drugs. Prescription fish oil. Niacin. Or the cholesterol drugs Vytorin and Zetia. There is no evidence that these prevent heart attacks, strokes and death -- only that they have a positive effect on blood fat levels.

A cardiologist at the University of Kansas Hospital says doctors make the assumption.

"It'd be taking it that one step further to say that reduction of that should prevent heart attacks," says Dr. Ashley Simmons.

The trouble with the assumption is that the drugs are costly. Americans spent 6.8 billion dollars on them last year. And there are risks. A recent study of niacin found it increases the chances of infection, gastrointestinal bleeding and diabetes.

Dr. Simmons says the drugs can be an option for people who can't take statins because of their side effects.

But she says patients taking them should ask their doctors, "Is this really beneficial to me? Should I continue it? And what is it doing to help me?"

She says a prescription for exercise is just as beneficial or more.

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