The Truth About Medication Versus Prevention

ID-100232281Staying as healthy as possible comes down to one word: prevention. So many times a physician prescribes a medicine to treat a patient for a problem but does not adequately emphasize what the patient should personally do to fight against the cause of the problem. The prevention aspect for good health gets overlooked or minimized. A patient is placed on a certain medication and thinks that is all he or she has to do to keep the arteries clean.

This is especially true when someone is placed on a cholesterol-lowering medication. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about one in four Americans over the age of forty-five takes a cholesterol-lowering drug. And the use of statins among people older than forty-five has increased tenfold in the past two decades. Patients think everything is okay if they take the medicine and their cholesterol numbers are in normal range the next time they have their blood drawn.

Doctors currently write 255 million prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering drugs each year. Although your doctor should be the one to decide whether you should take such a drug, many without heart disease are taking statins or similar drugs for preventive purposes. Some reports have shown, however, a nearly 50 percent increase in diabetes among longtime statin users. There are ways to cut the risks of a heart attack other than medication. Weight loss and exercise are by far safer than taking a pill for the rest of your life.

It is disheartening to hear about patients who have a problem with their cholesterol, or have had surgery on their heart arteries, or have had a stent placed, who think the solution to their problem is a prescribed drug. Prevention may be discussed by the doctor, but somehow the patient doesn’t realize prevention is the one thing he or she has control over. Nine out of ten don’t even begin changing their lifestyle to prevent the problem from worsening. Most simply take the medicine and continue on with life as they have always lived it.

Not too many months ago a gentleman told me an unbelievable story about a massive heart attack he had two years earlier, when he was in his mid-fifties. He felt chest pain and was rushed to the hospital in a small town before being air lifted to a city hospital a hundred miles away. He had two blockages in his heart arteries, and doctors immediately attempted to place a stent into each of the blockages. There was some type of complication after the initial stent had been inserted, however, and the remainder of the procedure had to be aborted. The remaining artery was left with a 70 percent blockage. He was already on medication for his blood pressure and was told after the stent was placed that his blood sugar was borderline high and his cholesterol was elevated. He was given medication for his cholesterol and blood pressure.

I asked him what instructions he received about changing his lifestyle after the procedure was completed and he was stable. “I knew I was overweight, and they may have said something about my weight,” he told me. He had a sense of excitement in giving me the details he remembered. “But their main focus was on avoiding sodium in my diet. So for the past two years, the main thing my wife and I have constantly focused on has been the amount of salt I eat.”

I explained the basis of the Prescription for Life plan to him. (I think it scared him some to hear the truth about where he was heading unless he did something about it.) Then in about a half hour, he committed to a completely new lifestyle. “I want to be around for my children and my future grandchildren,” he said. He had a solemn look on his face. Then he began a half smile. “I like the idea that at fifty-five years of age I can completely assure myself that I am not going to end my life with a heart attack.”

He finally understood that an alarm had gone off so loudly that he had to do something about his own fate. He was onboard. His mind was set.

In follow-up, he had lost most of his excess weight, had developed a completely different style of eating, and was exercising. He now takes a lower dose of his cholesterol medicine, and his blood pressure is in normal range. He is another example of someone who simply did not know what he should be doing. Now that he is informed, he is committed and making a difference he will appreciate the rest of his life.

So whether you are talking about taking extra medication or avoiding sodium, keep in mind the importance of a lifestyle change in addition to your treatment. Lifestyle change is the key to prevention.

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“Stethoscope and Pill” photo courtesy of cooldesign at