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Cholesterol Medication: Do We Need It? Maybe Not, According To One Study

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- If you could avoid taking medicine, would you?

A new study suggests many who are taking medicine for their hearts may not actually need it.

It's estimated around 50 percent of Americans over 40 have considered or decided to take cholesterol-lowering drugs. But a new study involving a local cardiologist suggests their chances of having a heart attack are actually minimal.

Cholesterol: It's been a buzz word for the past few decades. Dr. Mike Miedema, a cardiologist with the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern, says it may have been blown out of proportion.

"We used to just think of it as 'Your cholesterol causes plaque build-up, cholesterol causes heart disease,'" he said. "It's very clear that it's your cholesterol plus your blood pressure, plus what you eat, plus how much you exercise and your stress level."

Those are all things Kim Neuman, former fast-foodie and 30-year smoker, admits she never paid much attention to.

"I felt OK, and I didn't do what I should have done," she said.

Even though heart disease ran in her family, she tried to ignore the chest pressure she was feeling, but in June 2013, she finally went to the doctor. She can vividly recall what happened next.

"Within 15 minutes, the EMT's were in there taking me to Abbot Northwest Heart Hospital," she said. "I was having a heart attack."

She survived after surgery, and now she lives completely differently -- and she's 70 pounds lighter.

It's a storyline 52-year-old Paula Nelson of Isanti is trying to avoid.

"My father had a heart attack at 70 and die," she said. "My mother just had triple bypass last month, and my niece is 33 and had a heart attack."

So she showed up to get a heart scan, -- one that was well-timed if you ask Dr. Miedema.

"If your cholesterol's borderline elevated, or if your blood pressure is border line elevated, if you have something that's worrying you and something that's increasing your risk a little, then this test is really the ideal situation," he said.

The test is not new -- it's been around since the 90's, but the effectiveness of it is now coming to light. Dr. Miedema was part of a study that suggests half of the many people taking cholesterol drugs don't need them, because they probably won't ever have a heart attack.

"It's very hard to prevent heart attacks that weren't going to happen in the first place," he said.

He says even if you have high cholesterol or blood pressure that does not mean you will have a heart attack in the next five years, the better indicator is how much plaque is in your arteries. Something that can be spotted with a simple scan.

Dr. Miedema recommends the scans to people over 40 like Paula who are considering daily medication, have moderate risk or live in fear.

"Want to make sure, If I'm gonna keel over then I know about it ahead of time," Nelson said.

So she took the heart scan head on, at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. It's not insured, total cost $100 dollars, and not much time.

"You know what? Easy as pie. Simplest thing I did," she said after her test. "A little nap -- five minutes, we're done,"

Days later, Dr. Miedema, called and explained her results.

"Throughout the heart, there was no evidence of calcified plaque. Her total calcium score was a zero, meaning there's no plaque there," he said. "It's associated with every low low risk, a 1-2 percent risk to the point where I don't think any preventative medicines would be needed here."

"It's perfect, I'm so excited," Nelson reacted.

And she's cleared to go full steam ahead in her new "boot camp" class.

"It just feels good to know that that's one less thing for me to be thinking about right now," she said. "To move on with my diet and exercise and not worry about that part of it."

A five-minute scan of the heart -- a five-year piece of mind.

Dr. Miedema says heart meds can cause side effects, that's why there's no point in being on them if you aren't likely going to have a heart attack.

For more information, visit or call 763-577-7615.


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