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High cholesterol levels can increase your risk for stroke and heart attack. Getty Images

People with narrow arteries who take statins can cut their risk of heart attack or stroke in half.

But new research finds that only 6 percent of these patients are taking the drug as recommended by a doctor.

So, researchers set out to determine: If statins are so effective, why are so many people failing to take them?

The answers weren’t easy to come by.

The recent study included 5,468 people first diagnosed with cardiovascular disease between 1999 and 2013. They all received a statin prescription to reduce cholesterol within the first year of being diagnosed.

Researchers looked at whether they took their medication and how many major adverse clinical events such as strokes and heart attacks they experienced over the following five years.

“We conducted this study because statins are really important to prevent recurrent events or deaths among patients with cardiovascular disease. Adherence has always been an issue with patients who have been put on this medication,” Heidi May, PhD, principal investigator of the study and cardiovascular epidemiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute, told Healthline.

High cholesterol levels in your blood increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Statins block a substance your body needs to make cholesterol, reducing the amount circulating in your body.

May and her team found that patients who took their statins as prescribed at least 80 percent of the time reduced their risk of having a heart attack or stroke by nearly 50 percent.

“People do worse when they don’t take their medication,” she said. “The more patients adhered to their statin regimen, the better that they did. So, if you want to increase your chances of not having another cardiovascular event, then taking the medicine is really important and can help.”

The study also found that while 25 percent of people never filled their statin prescription in the first place, a similar number of people didn’t bother to fill their second one.

“We really don’t know why people weren’t taking them, mainly because we had no contact with the patients, we didn’t talk to them,” May said. “But we don’t think cost was really an issue because they all had health insurance and statins are pretty inexpensive — I think it’s 5 or 10 dollars for a three-month supply.”

No drug comes without potential side effects, but the most frequent one experienced with statins is reasonably minor compared to the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

“Myopathy, which is muscle weakness, is the most frequently reported complaint, and severe myopathy (rhabdomyolysis) only occurs in about 1 in 10,000 patients,” Dr. Victoria Shin, a cardiologist with Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

In the American Heart Association’s (AHA) first scientific report specifically reviewing health issues associated with statin use, the AHA states that, in double-blind randomized controlled trials “there is little, if any difference (at most 1 percent) in the incidence of muscle symptoms between the statin and placebo.”

However, a recent study has found that statins can increase the risk of developing diabetes.

Researchers found statin use was associated with a 9 to 13 percent increased risk of new-onset diabetes.

They concluded that statin users, particularly people who have prediabetes or are at high risk, should be monitored carefully while using these drugs.

“Moderate-intensity and high-intensity statins increase relative risk for diagnosed diabetes by about 10 and 20 percent, respectively. This will affect roughly 1 in 100 statin users during five years of statin use. Whether this effect is reversible is still unclear,” said Shin.

Statins are the “gold standard” for treating high cholesterol.

They’re a powerful class of medication proven to save the lives of people living with or having a high risk of heart attack or stroke.

May emphasized that statin drugs are the only cholesterol-lowering drugs that have been shown to significantly and reliably reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death in high-risk patients.

In a 2016 article, researchers put statin side effects into perspective.

The authors wrote: “[E]xaggerated claims about side-effect rates with statin therapy may be responsible for its underuse among individuals at increased risk of cardiovascular events. For, whereas the rare cases of myopathy [muscle pain] and any muscle-related symptoms that are attributed to statin therapy generally resolve rapidly when treatment is stopped, the heart attacks or strokes that may occur if statin therapy is stopped unnecessarily can be devastating.”

“Statins are very safe in the majority of patients,” Shin emphasized. “And the benefits outweigh the risks in patients with known cardiovascular disease as well as those with high cholesterol as primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

A recent study finds that only 6 percent of people prescribed statins are taking them.

Researchers have no idea why.

Statins do come with side effects, the most frequent being muscle weakness, although it affects a very small percent of people taking them.

However, a recent study did find a moderately increased risk of developing diabetes.

Experts say the benefits of statins far outweigh any risks. Currently, statins are the only medication proven to save the lives of people living with or having a high risk of heart attack or stroke.