Television ads for cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may lead to overdiagnosis of high cholesterol and overtreatment with the drugs, according to a new study.
The research found that patients' visits with doctors to ask about statins advertised on TV often lead to prescriptions for the drugs.
The study was published online March 7 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
It examined how often more than 106,000 American adults were exposed to such ads between 2001 and 2007. Researchers also looked at whether these adults reported being diagnosed with high cholesterol, whether they had taken a statin in the previous year and their risk factors for heart disease.
The study found that adults who had seen statin ads on TV were 16 percent to 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with high cholesterol, and 16 percent to 22 percent more likely to be using statins, according to a journal news release.
However, the association between TV ads for statins and the increased likelihood of being diagnosed with high cholesterol and being prescribed statins was driven almost entirely by people at low risk for heart disease. People at high risk for heart disease who saw statin ads on TV were not more likely to be taking a statin.
"Our findings raise questions about the extent to which direct-to-consumer advertising may promote overdiagnosis and overtreatment for populations where risks may outweigh potential benefits," wrote Dr. Jeff Niederdeppe, of Cornell University, and colleagues. "In addition, we found no evidence of favorable associations between exposure to statins in television advertisements and statin use among those at high risk for future cardiac events."
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and high levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol are a major contributor. Statins have been proven to reduce LDL cholesterol.