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Generic heart drugs as good as brand names

Open your medicine cabinet or pill drawer, and you’re likely to find at least one generic drug. That’s a good thing for your bank account — generics cost less than their brand-name counterparts. But some people worry that these low-profile drugs aren’t as effective or as safe as brand-name drugs. An analysis of head-to-head comparisons of generic and brand-name cardiovascular drugs shows no cause for concern.

Generic drugs are chemical clones of their brand-name counterparts. By law, a generic drug must

  • contain the same active ingredients as the brand-name drug
  • be identical in strength, dosage form, and administration
  • work the same way in the body (be bioequivalent)
  • meet the same standards for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • be made by the same rules the FDA has set for the brand-name drug.

What’s different is the “look” of the drug and the inactive ingredients. Generics contain different coloring agents, binders, and preservatives than the brand-name drug. These might make a difference in how the drug works for you, but that’s uncommon.

To the test

Researchers from Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital identified 38 randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of medical research) that measured a clinical or safety endpoint in tests of ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, statins, and other cardiovascular drugs. In 35 of the 38 studies, the brand-name and generic drugs worked equally well. In the other three, the differences were small and unrelated to the drug’s action (Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 3, 2008).

Generic possibilities for heart disease medications
Drug class Popular brand names Generics available?
ACE inhibitors Altace, Accupril Yes
alpha blockers Cardura, Minipress Yes
angiotensin-receptor blockers Diovan, Cozaar No
anti-anginals Isordil, Nitrostat Yes
anti-arrhythmics Norpace, Cordarone Yes
Anticoagulants Coumadin Yes
beta blockers Toprol, Coreg Yes
calcium-channel blockers Norvasc, Cardizem Yes
Diuretics Lasix, Aldactone Yes
Fibrates Tricor, Lopid Yes
Statins Lipitor, Crestor Yes

Making the switch

Most people who change to a generic drug notice only the savings. Sometimes they’re modest, sometimes spectacular. Take Toprol XL, for example. Instead of paying $520 for a year’s supply of this beta blocker, you could get generic metoprolol for $240. WalMart, Target, Safeway, and other chains offer an even sweeter deal — hundreds of generic medications, including metoprolol, for just $48 a year. The savings on Pravachol, a cholesterol-lowering statin, are even more impressive. A year’s supply of Pravachol costs $1,500 or more, while generic pravastatin costs $200, or just $48 at one of the big stores.

If you aren’t sure if there are generic alternatives to brand-name drugs you are taking, ask your doctor or pharmacist. You can also check for yourself. Reference books such as The Physician’s Desk Reference or The AARP Guide to Pills, which your public library might have, list generic alternatives to brand-name drugs. If you have access to the Internet, several Web sites offer similar information. The most detailed, though hardest to use, is the Food and Drug Administration’s Drugs@FDA. Web sites such as and also have generic checkers.

March 2009 update

Aging Process Special Report
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Americans are living longer than ever before! For many, those extra years prove satisfying and productive. Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to shape your future. Living Independently in Your Later Years offers advice on what you can do to preserve your independence and protect your health as you continue to age. Read more

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