Prescriptions for statins have reached record levels, with the number soaring over the last 30 years.
Around one million prescriptions for the cholesterol-lowering drugs are written each week, compared with a few thousand in 1981.
Despite side effects ranging from memory loss to muscle pains for the unlucky few, statins have become a mainstay for doctors treating heart attack and stroke survivors.
They make up nearly a fifth of all medicines prescribed for heart and circulatory disease, according to the British Heart Foundation.
There are more than 52 million prescriptions for lipid-lowering drugs – the majority of which are statins – in England each year.
The drugs are effective in lowering levels of cholesterol, the fatty substance in the blood that clogs up arteries.
The BHF says prescriptions related to heart and circulatory disease total about 266million annually.
In 1981, lipid-lowering drugs only accounted for 295,000 – not even one per cent of a total 46million prescriptions for cardiovascular medicines.
Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said ‘When the BHF was founded in 1961, statins weren’t even available to doctors but now they help many millions of people across the UK.
‘They’ve undoubtedly changed the face of heart disease treatment for the better and prevented many heart attacks and strokes.
‘As with any other medicine, some people do experience side effects from statins but these are rarely life threatening and the benefits of statins far outweigh any disadvantages.
‘They continue to make a major contribution to the nation’s heart health.’
About 7million patients in the UK are taking statins, many of whom have survived a first heart attack.
But the Cochrane Library recently said there was little evidence of protection unless a person’s risk of a heart attack was already high.
Warnings about side effects such as memory loss, fatigue, muscle pain and weakness, continue to emerge, with estimates ranging from one to 20 per cent of patients affected.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency recently warned about additional risks including sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction and depression.
Research last month found high dose statins increase the risk of type 2 diabetes by 12 per cent compared with moderate doses.
But the BHF said the drugs were safe.
Cambridge GP and Associate Medical Director at the BHF, Dr Mike Knapton, said ‘Statins are among the safest and most studied drugs available to me for the benefit of patients.
‘Over the course of my 30-year career in medicine, I’ve seen lots of people debilitated by heart attacks and strokes and I try very hard to prevent them happening – statins help me to do that.
‘But these drugs aren’t the only development we’ve seen in the field of cardiovascular care.
‘The last 50 years have seen huge advances, including heart failure drugs and heart transplants, and most children born with a heart defect now survive thanks to life-saving surgery.
‘Combined with statins, these breakthroughs have undoubtedly improved people’s health and saved lives.’