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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 July 2007, 01:59 GMT 02:59 UK
Pill popping: the lazy way to health
Man watching television
Many of us do not get enough exercise
Modern lifestyles are making us lazier - whether it's because we're too busy to exercise or find it too tempting to jump in the car.

One in five adults in England admit they walk for 20 minutes or more only once a year or less.

It is clear a "couch potato" lifestyle increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, among other deadly diseases.

But the "exercise for 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week" message does not seem to be having an impact.

We are conscious of the accusation of being a nanny state and imposing things on people, so I think choice remains an important thing
Professor Roger Boyle, heart tsar

Instead, prescriptions for medications which offset the ill-effects of an unhealthy lifestyle are increasing.

Latest figures for "cholesterol busting" pills statins show annual prescriptions of 40 million.

And although worries over side effects such as an increased risk of cancer are widely reported in the press, figures show their use has helped to decrease rates of heart disease in England in recent years.

Saving lives

The National Institute of Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) recommend all adults with a 20% risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years be offered a statin.

This is a recommendation which makes six million people eligible for the drugs on the NHS.

Government heart tsar Professor Roger Boyle said blanket prescribing of statins to all those over 50 years would have the biggest effect on saving lives, but it was not realistic.

"We are conscious of the accusation of being a nanny state and imposing things on people, so I think choice remains an important thing."

GPs are now beginning to trawl through their patient data to find people who might benefit from statins based on their age, smoking history, blood pressure and cholesterol.

Statins interact with the body's ability to produce cholesterol
Around 3 million adults in England are prescribed statins
They used to be reserved for people who had suffered a heart attack
Statins are now recommended for many more people at high-risk of heart disease

"Statins save 9,000-10,000 lives each year," said Professor Boyle, who himself takes a statin.

"We have seen very gratifying reductions in people admitted to hospital with a heart attack and the ones that have been admitted have not been severe.

"There is a debate about medicalising a large proportion of the population.

"But we need to work harder to explain to people what the benefits are - that they will lead longer, healthier lives."

Risks and benefits

Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "We wouldn't have to consider this if we had a population who didn't smoke, who exercised regularly, who really took care of their cardiovascular health.

"But the fact of the matter is, we choose to live differently and we can offset the risk by being on a statin."

There's no doubt if people did take more exercise their risk of disease would go down and their need for medicine would go down
Dr Ian Campbell, Weight Concern

He said the rare serious adverse effects of statins needed to be put in context, and other medications which people were happy to take regularly - such as the pill and Viagra - were associated with more problems.

"We have to inform people about the difference between side-effects and risk.

"Statins have been around for 20 years, they are effective and they are very, very safe."

He added there were still debates to be had, such as working out more about who benefited the most from the drugs and how far cholesterol should be lowered.

But Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of Weight Concern and a GP in Nottingham, said doctors had forgotten how great an influence lifestyle choices had on health, and were becoming more and more drug-oriented.

"The reality is so much of the chronic disease we are having to deal with is caused by a less than healthy lifestyle.

"There's no doubt if people did take more exercise their risk of disease would go down and their need for medicine would go down."

He added that drugs such as statins had a significant effect above that which can be achieved with lifestyle changes, and were vital for people with a high risk.

"The concerns I have is there are grades of risk - we have now got people able to buy statins over the counter for a relatively small risk which could be negated for lifestyle changes.

"It's for people at the other end of the spectrum that you need both drugs and lifestyle changes."


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