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Researchers say they hope their study will alleviate concerns of some older adults about the side effects of statins. Getty Images
  • A new study reports that statins do not cause additional memory loss in older adults.
  • Experts note that some people avoid statins because of concerns over dementia, muscle pain, and diabetes risk.
  • Experts added that for most people the benefits of statins will outweigh the side effects.

Statins can prolong your life if you have heart disease.

They also aren’t likely to cause you to lose your memory or your cognitive abilities as you get older.

Older adults who use statin drugs — commonly prescribed for conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, renal disease, and other lipid disorders — suffered no additional memory loss or mental decline than people of the same age who didn’t take the drugs, according to a study published this week by Australian researchers.

Katherine Samaras, PhD, MBBS, FRACP, an endocrinologist at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Australia and a lead study author, said that statins “aren’t associated with a risk for major adverse health [problems].”

“These findings will hopefully go a long way toward reducing consumers’ concerns about memory and cognition from statins, so they don’t stop taking these lifesaving medications,” she said.

Dr. Paul D. Thompson, emeritus chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital and a leading researcher on statin side effects, told Healthline that the study is “reassuring,” but he noted that the study was small and did not involve a randomized population, limiting the implications of the findings.

The 6-year observational study of older individuals not suffering from dementia was followed by 2 years of brain volume studies.

A total of 1,037 participants ages 70 to 90 took part in the study, including 642 statin users and 395 subjects who had never used the drugs.

Statin users in the study had been taking the drugs for an average of 9 years.

Researchers diagnosed and documented the presence of major health issues among the study group, including heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

Study participants were categorized by whether they had ever used statins, were using the drugs currently, or never had used statins.

Use of specific statin drugs, including simvastatin, pravastatin, and atorvastatin, was also studied, with users again compared to those who never used statin drugs.

This isn’t the first study to find a low risk of cognitive impairment associated with statins.

In 2013, Johns Hopkins researchers conducted a long-term study that found no evidence that statins caused memory loss or dementia.

In fact, this and other studies found that statin drugs may even protect against dementia.

Nonetheless, in 2012 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) modified warning labels on statins to include cautions that the drugs may be linked to memory loss, forgetfulness, and confusion.

“There have been rare post-marketing reports of cognitive impairment (e.g., memory loss, forgetfulness, amnesia, memory impairment, confusion) associated with statin use,” according to the FDA. “These reported symptoms are generally not serious and reversible upon statin discontinuation.”

The FDA also noted, “Data from the observational studies and clinical trials did not suggest that cognitive changes associated with statin use are common or lead to clinically significant cognitive decline.”

There have also been some concerns raised over the effectiveness of statins and the number of people who are prescribed the drugs.

A study published last month stated that statins may not be necessary for people with lower heart disease risk.

Another study released in April reported that about half of participants failed to lower their cholesterol levels after taking statins for 2 years.

Thompson said thousands of people avoid statins because of concerns about side effects such as muscle pain, increased risk of diabetes, and possible cognitive issues.

About 5 percent of patients in Thompson’s practice report muscle pain, the most common complaint among statin users.

By contrast, Thompson said complaints about cognitive issues are “very rare.”

Even people who experience these side effects are probably better off taking statins than not.

Studies showing an increase in the number of diabetes cases, for example, found far greater reductions in heart attacks in the same population, Thompson noted.

Statins also reduce the risk of stroke by preventing the build-up of cholesterol in the veins that can sometimes break off and migrate to the brain, causing blockages.

That, in turn, likely reduces the rate of vascular dementia, Thompson said.

“Overall, I think statins are good for preserving brain function,” he said.

“We’ve never seen drugs that are this effective. They have changed the practice of cardiology,” said Thompson. “Treatment always has to be done on an individual basis, but community-wide, the benefits of statins far outweigh the risks.”