Jerome Burne, part two: the drugs don’t work
March 16, 2012 | By:
In his new book, our medical expert takes a radical approach to healthy ageing. Daniela Soave asks him about the adverse effects of conventional medication

There's got to be a better way than taking pills to alleviate the side effects of other pills

Q: Why is it important to start paying attention to the drugs we may be prescribed in our forties and fifties?

A: The medical profession’s job is to diagnose and treat, which they do, by and large, with drugs. Yet one of the things that became clear while researching my new book is that if you want to stay healthy for as long as possible, drugs are not likely to be very effective at keeping you that way. Half of the population aged 65 and older in the UK is taking five or more drugs a day. It is not uncommon for drugs to cause side effects, which in turn leads to more drugs being prescribed to counteract that. And by the time you reach 75 or 80, many people are on a dozen or more drugs a day. This is called polypharmacy.

Q: It’s a bit difficult, not to say awkward, to challenge your doctor about what he prescribes, don’t you think?

A: The idea of my book was to present facts and evidence that you wouldn’t otherwise be told, so that you can have a more informed discussion with your doctor. Doctors tend to play down side effects. But it’s worth talking about those with your doctor and asking if there are steps you can take to deal with the issue before resorting to drugs. That includes keeping yourself in reasonable shape, of course, which reduces risk of illness.

Q: Why are statins so commonly prescribed to over-50s?

A: Statins are prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack. They’re given to people who have already suffered a coronary episode or who are at risk. A huge proportion of the population are on them, roughly seven million. Probably two million of those have already had a heart attack, which means that five million people have been given statins by their doctor because their risk might be raised. This could be because you are overweight, or not exercising, or you have raised cholesterol and you’re over 55. So there is a strong tendency for doctors to recommend that you take statins. It may come as a surprise to learn that, at most, one person in every 100 who are on statins will not go on to have a heart attack. A study into whether statins were effective in preventing people dying from heart disease revealed that they benefitted fewer than one in 1,000 people. So, the chances that you will benefit from taking this drug are not good. Yet the side effects you will get from taking it will definitely alter the quality of your life.

Q: How concerned should I be about side effects?

A: Ask your doctor to discuss these with you. Statins cut production of a powerful enzyme called Q10, which you need to produce energy, and that is why so many people on statins feel tired. Diuretics to lower blood pressure causes a loss in Vitamin C, calcium, potassium and magnesium, all of which are involved in controlling blood pressure. Ace inhibitors, also used for hypertension, reduce the available zinc, which is needed by the immune system, and to make testosterone, so your sex drive is adversely affected. The list goes on. Drugs that prevent heartburn can block the intake of minerals and vitamins from food because you need stomach acid to absorb them. This has also been linked to bone problems, because they interfere with calcium and cut down the amount of magnesium your body can access.

Q: How important are minerals and vitamins? There seems to be a debate about the validity of supplements. Should I be concerned?

A: Even though there is a debate raging about whether vitamins are a waste of time, it is very hard to disagree with the fact that when you get older your levels are going to drop. A lot of the issues that come with ageing require minerals and vitamins for the body to keep functioning. So it’s worth thinking about how the drugs you are prescribed affect your mineral and vitamin status. You either need to cut back on the drugs or take supplements to counterbalance them. Most people are not aware that drugs interact with vitamins. Certain drugs can reduce the body’s ability to absorb them from the gut.  In Canada you would be warned on the medicine packet, and told to take a supplement. That doesn’t happen here.

Q: So the medication I take now, and how I look after myself, will have a direct effect on my quality of life in my seventies and eighties?

A: Absolutely. Before you get put on a range of drugs aimed at preventing you from developing something, it is worth asking your doctor what else you can do, what the effects of the drugs are, and what minerals and vitamins you might lose. Relying on your doctor to keep you fit and healthy into your old age is not a good idea. You’ve got to take responsibility and do your part through good diet and supplements, exercise and mental wellbeing.

Read part one of this article: Our man with the secrets to healthy ageing

The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing: How to Live Longer, Look Younger and Feel Great, by Patrick Holford and Jerome Burne (Piaktus, £14.99) will be published in April

Further reading Nutraceuticals: the natural high-performance drugs

Alzheimer’s: the vitamins that may save you

Make like a tortoise: can science help us live to 150?

Anti-ageing: those tell-tail telomeres