A few months ago, I discovered I was ‘ill’. Prior to that, at the age of 46, I had felt confident of longevity.
I had managed to sidestep the surgeon’s knife and, aside from a case of mild pneumonia two years ago, had never succumbed to anything worse than gastric flu.
At nine stone, I ate sensibly and while not exactly sporty, I am a regular swimmer and former sprinting champion.
Nonetheless, my NHS GP complained I had never had a proper check-up and, tired of her badgering, I went through some routine tests during which a nurse took a blood sample.
I thought little of it until four days later, when I picked up a message on my mobile phone at 9pm. ‘There are serious abnormalities with your blood results. You had better call me,’ the GP said.
The following morning, after a sleepless night, I dialled my doctor’s number. ‘Hello, Ms Wyatt. It’s about your blood results. I am very concerned. Your cholesterol. It’s 11.5. It should be well below five, ideally three. Moreover, 7.5 is LDL, which is bad cholesterol. In my career I have never come across a higher cholesterol count.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked.
‘It means you are at a very high risk of having a heart attack. A 60 per cent chance within ten years.’
STATINS WERE ‘ESSENTIAL’
I have avoided doctors, because they are professional doomsayers and this was not the news I wanted to hear. Surely it was only dyspeptic old men, with stomachs like drunken dollar signs, who had cholesterol. Was I a heavy drinker and a regular consumer of fast food?
‘No!’ I protested. Were I to be condemned to an early death, it would be without the stigma of alcoholism and a penchant for fry-ups.
A couple of glasses of white wine a week is my limit, and diet is not so much trans fat as sans fat.
‘Perhaps it’s genetic, then,’ came back the answer. Was that better? No, it was worse.
Poleaxed and somewhat dazed, I asked what could be done.
I was told that with cholesterol as high as mine I must be put on statins, the drug that lowers cholesterol by breaking it down in the blood-stream. As I write, there are roughly seven million Britons on them.
My GP continued: ‘This is essential. Most people on statins start with a cholesterol level of four to six.’ Moreover, I would have to take them for the rest of my life. ‘I also want to see you change your diet. You may think you eat well, but I am sending you a diet sheet.’
My heart sank when I read it. Eggs, it seemed, had to go, unless I only ate the whites. So, to my surprise, did chicken breasts (too much fat), nuts, shellfish and chocolate. I was not eating enough fibre, though I could not be convicted of either butter or dairy.
My father had a morbid fear of heart disease (though he died of cancer) and never permitted fatty foods at the table. In restaurants he would startle waiters who arrived with butter dishes by shouting: ‘Are you trying to kill me?’
It was a hard regime. I abhor pulses and porridge, yet pulses and porridge were now to be my lot. I had read in a medical journal that scientists were divided as to whether eggs cause ‘bad’ cholesterol. My doctor was having no dissension: ‘Do you think you know better than I do?’
After collecting my prescription, I sought a second opinion from another GP. He told me: ‘When cholesterol is that high you cannot eat your way to a safe level.’ A third doctor said the same thing.
THEN… I FELT ILL
I had been taking the statins for a week when my head began to throb. I fell down twice, blacking out for a few seconds each time. I was unable to sleep for more than four hours a night and when I did, I had fiendish nightmares.
Some mornings, I shut myself in my room, too depressed to speak. I started to drink rum at night to calm my nerves, but instead, I suffered crying fits and moments of murderous anger. I rang my GP, but she refused to believe me when I said that the statins were making me ill. ‘That’s impossible. Statins are utterly harmless. Perhaps it’s the change in your diet.’
I went online for answers. Some studies have found that reducing ‘bad’ cholesterol had no effect on longevity, and that 75 per cent of heart-attack victims have normal levels of cholesterol.
I struggled on with the medication though my temper had become so bad that when I went to collect a dress from the dry-cleaners and found it wasn’t ready, I began to swear at the assistant and then burst into loud sobs.
Eventually I rang an old friend who is a distinguished consultant cardiologist. At his behest I underwent a series of tests in Harley Street. I expected a significant drop in my cholesterol levels. Yet the figures had hardly moved.
After 12 weeks of statins, and a dreary, almost vegetarian diet, my cholesterol was 9.8. My cardiologist friend suggested I stop taking the statins for three weeks while keeping to a heart-friendly diet.
A NEW LEASE OF LIFE
After 48 hours my headaches were gone, my bonhomie and oomph had returned and with it a renewed enthusiasm for exercise.
I bought a bicycle, I started taking long walks and I sprinted on the track near my home in North London. I slept easily and deeply. My moods became equable. After 21 days, I had a third blood test. Without statins, but with regular exercise, porridge every other day and lower levels of stress, my cholesterol reading dropped to seven.
‘Perhaps I should not say this,’ my cardiologist said carefully, ‘but if you are, in all other respects, healthy, with low blood pressure, you are very unlikely to have a heart attack. In your case, I would say that statins could do you long-term harm.
‘This is a minority view at present, but it is a valid one.’ I wrote to my GP saying I was stopping the statins, adding that since Darwin, matters of science had not been decided by majority opinion.
She wrote back suggesting I find a new GP. Many readers, and much of the medical profession, will disagree with my course of action.
Nonetheless, I do not believe I will die of a heart attack before my 56th birthday, though I may be wrong. My mother, who is 90 and Hungarian, let slip the other day that 15 years ago she been told her cholesterol was 10.6. ‘What did you do?’ I asked.
‘Nussing,’ she replied. ‘Zey wanted to put me on a drug. I told them my mother lived till 97, and I take enough pills already.’
STATINS: THERE ARE SIDE EFFECTS… BUT BENEFITS TOO
HEALTH COMMENT by Dr Ellie Cannon
The way we treat high cholesterol has certainly changed over the past decade.
When statins first came on to the market there was good evidence to show that anyone with even the smallest rise in cholesterol should be on them, to prevent cardiovascular disease.
As the body of evidence has grown, we have taken a more pragmatic approach, weighing up all the risk factors for heart disease, including obesity and smoking, before considering a statin.
So there are now many patients with high cholesterol who would not be offered the drug because their general risks are low.
However, a total cholesterol of 11, as Petronella had, is unusually high and such a level would normally be indicative of someone with an inherited cholesterol issue.
In my experience all such patients are offered statins, rather than dietary advice which often doesn’t have a significant impact.
In spite of this, I’m surprised that any GP would describe statins as ‘utterly harmless’. You could never describe any medication in that way as all come with side effects, however mild, and statins are known to cause muscle cramps as well as other problems.
The risks of that for patients are usually outweighed by the tremendous benefits statins can confer in preventing catastrophic strokes and heart attacks.