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Niacin Does not Reduce Risk of Heart Attack or Stroke

Update Date: Jul 17, 2014 03:37 PM EDT

For patients with hardened arteries, doctors commonly prescribe a cholesterol drug called niacin, which is supposed to improve levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. In a new study, researchers found that niacin did not reduce people's risk of heart attack or stroke. The drug, however, caused side effects that could increase people's risk of death.

In this large, clinical trial, researchers recruited heart patients from the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and China. Around 26,000 patients were a part of the final analysis with roughly one-third of the original group of patients dropping out of the trial due to side effects. The researchers found that niacin only slightly improved people's HDL cholesterol. At the same time, however, the drug increased people's risk of suffering from potentially fatal side effects. Some of the side effects include excess bleeding, infections, diarrhea, gout, skin-related infection and liver complications. For diabetic patients in particular, the drug caused a 55 percent increase in loss of blood sugar control.

"I don't think we're now in any doubt these are problems associated with niacin use," senior study author Jane Armitage, a professor of clinical trials and epidemiology at the University of Oxford in England, said according to WebMD. "This is a drug that has been available for 50 years for treating cholesterol, and it has taken a large study like this to reveal the impact of the side effects."

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, chief of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago added, "People taking niacin need to have a conversation with their doctor sooner rather than later to see whether it is appropriate to continue taking it and whether there are reasonable alternatives. This trial suggests that for every 200 patients we put on niacin, there may be one excess death related to the drug. That suggests to me this is a drug that should not be in general use for most patients."

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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