If you’ve had a heart attack or other condition that was caused by blockages in your arteries, your doctor may recommend that you take a medication called a statin. You also may be prescribed a statin if you have high cholesterol and you’ve not been able to get it under control with diet, exercise, or weight loss.
Statins are a class of drugs that lower the levels of artery-clogging “bad” LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. Reducing LDL is believed to help decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes, especially for people who have other risk factors.
Statins Are Widely Used
Cardiovascular disease (CVD), or disease of the heart and blood vessels, is a leading cause of death in the United States.
Given the impact of CVD on public health and the fact that statins are effective and tolerated well by most people, this class of drugs is widely used. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that cholesterol-lowering drugs were the most prescribed medications in 2010.
The number of people taking statins is expected to skyrocket. New guidelines for heart health, issued in 2014 by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, recommend expanding the use of statins. Under these guidelines, half of all Americans between the ages of 40 and 75 may qualify for statin therapy.
Cholesterol and Statins
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty steroid that your body needs for things like:
- cell production
- sex hormones
- converting sunlight to vitamin D
It comes from the food you eat and is produced in your body, mainly in your liver.
Cholesterol travels via your bloodstream. This is where “bad” LDL cholesterol can form plaques. Plaques are thick, hard deposits that can cling to the walls of arteries, restricting the flow of blood. They also can break off and release chemicals that can form blood clots, which can lead to stroke and other serious health conditions.
Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme that your liver needs to produce LDL cholesterol. It also increases “good” HDL cholesterol, which is responsible for moving bad cholesterol from your arteries back to the liver.
Statin Side Effects
For most people who experience them, these side effects improve with time or by switching to another statin. Serious side effects are very rare in people taking statins. There are two serious side effects, however, that need to be mentioned:
- Rhabdomyolysis is a serious condition in which cells of muscles become damaged. This is more likely to occur in people who are taking statins with other medications that carry a similar risk.
- Liver damage can occur when statins cause an increase in liver enzymes that help digestion.
New Concerns About Statins
In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued changes in the safety precautions printed on statin labels to include the following information:
- Use of statins may increase your risk for non-serious and reversible problems with memory, forgetfulness, and confusion.
- There have been some reports that statins may increase blood sugar levels.
- The FDA no longer recommends routine monitoring of liver enzymes in people who take statins.
What’s the Verdict: Are Statins Good or Bad for You?
The American Heart Association journal, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, published a report on an exhaustive analysis of 135 randomized controlled trials. Researchers found that side effects varied depending on which statin an individual took. People taking simvastatin and pravastatin had fewer side effects.
The study concluded that statins are generally safe and that side effects were not common. It also found that the benefits of statins outweigh the risks for most people.
An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, cautions that statins may or may not benefit people who have not had a heart attack.
Are statins good or bad for you? Ultimately, it’s up to you and your doctor to discuss the risks and benefits of statins, based on your unique health status.