Statins and memory loss
Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for high cholesterol in the United States. However, recently there have been concerns over their side effects. Some statin users have reported that they experienced memory loss while taking the medication.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated its safety information for statins to include memory loss, forgetfulness, and confusion as possible risks. But is there really a link between taking statins and memory loss?
What are statins?
Statins are a prescription drug that blocks the substance in your liver that the body uses to make low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often called “bad cholesterol.” Your body needs some cholesterol, but having high levels of LDL cholesterol puts your health at risk.
If you have high levels of LDL cholesterol, it can cause blockages in your blood vessels that may lead to a heart attack or stroke. Some types of statins help your body reduce the amount of bad cholesterol that has already built up in your artery walls.
Statins come in pill form. If your LDL cholesterol levels are above 100 mg/dL, and you aren’t able to lower those levels with lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe a statin. It’s also common for your doctor to prescribe a statin if you have a higher risk of heart disease, or if you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recently released new guidelines on statin use. The new guidelines suggest that more people can benefit from statins than previously believed. They recommend statin treatment for people ages 40 to 75 without heart disease who have a 7.5 percent (or higher) risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years.
Your doctor is most likely to prescribe statins if you:
- have a history of heart attack, stroke, or heart disease
- have a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years
- are 21 or over with an LDL cholesterol level of 190 mg/dL or higher
- are age 40 to 75 and have diabetes
Your doctor may do tests to help to determine if you fit into one of these groups. The tests may include measuring your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, or other risk factors.
Types of statins
There are seven types of statins available in the United States:
- atorvastatin (Lipitor)
- fluvastatin (Lescol)
- lovastatin (Altoprev)
- pravastatin (Pravachol)
- rosuvastatin (Crestor)
- simvastatin (Zocor)
- pitavastatin (Livalo)
These different types of statins vary in their potency. The Harvard Health Letter notes that atorvastatin is one of the most potent statins. On the other hand, lovastatin and simvastatin may be prescribed if you need to lower your LDL levels by a smaller percentage.
The link between statins and memory loss
While statin users have reported memory loss to the FDA, studies haven’t found evidence to support these claims. Research has actually suggested the opposite — that statins may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
In a 2013 review, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine looked at 41 different studies on statins to see if there was a link between taking the medication and memory loss. Combined, the studies followed 23,000 men and women with no history of memory problems for up to 25 years. The researchers found no evidence that using statins caused memory loss or dementia. In fact, there was some evidence that long-term statin use may protect against dementia.
Scientists believe this is because certain types of dementia are caused by small blockages in blood vessels that carry blood to the brain. Statins may help to reduce these blockages.
There remains some uncertainty about whether statins affect memory. A 2015 study found that a small group of patients taking statins experienced amnesia. However, that finding may have been insignificant. The percentage of people taking statins who reported memory issues wasn’t much different from those taking other cholesterol-lowering medications.
Despite the large amount of research showing that statins do not cause memory loss, some people may still experience this condition. Talk to your doctor if you are taking statins and experiencing unpleasant side effects. You should not stop taking the medication on your own.
Are there other risks?
Like most medications, statins do have side effects. Other reported risks and side effects include:
- muscle pain and weakness
- muscle damage
- liver damage
- digestive issues (nausea, gas, diarrhea, constipation)
- rash or flushing
- increased blood sugar and risk of developing type 2 diabetes
What else affects memory?
A variety of other medications and conditions can cause memory loss. If you are finding it hard to remember things, consider the possible causes. Even if you are taking statins, there may be another reason for your memory loss.
Memory loss can be a side effect of different types of medication. It is most likely to occur with drugs that interact with your brain’s neurotransmitters. For example, one study found that some drugs that interfere with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine might raise your risk of certain diseases linked with memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter involved with memory and learning.
Medications that can affect memory include:
- antianxiety medications
- hypertension drugs
- sleeping aids
- metformin, a drug used for diabetes
Sometimes combining multiple types of medications can also lead to adverse reactions, including confusion or memory loss. Symptoms associated with memory loss include:
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty doing daily activities
Conditions that can affect memory include:
- sleep deprivation, depression, and stress
- head injuries
- nutritional deficiencies, particularly in vitamins B-1 and B-12
- underactive or overactive thyroid
- dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
Preventing memory loss
There are certain lifestyle habits that may help prevent memory loss. If you want to reduce your risk of memory loss, consider making some healthy changes. Steps you can take include:
- staying physically and mentally active
- socializing regularly
- staying organized
- getting enough sleep
- following a healthy, balanced diet
These healthy practices may also help cut your risk of other conditions, such as heart disease.
Treating memory loss
Treatments for memory loss vary depending on the cause. For example, memory loss caused by antidepressants is treated differently than memory loss caused by dementia.
In some cases, memory loss is reversible with treatment. When medications are to blame, a change in prescriptions can often reverse memory loss. If nutritional deficiencies are the cause, taking a supplement can be helpful.
Pros and cons of statins
Statins are an effective treatment for lowering high cholesterol and improving heart health, but they still have risks. The best way to improve heart health is through lifestyle changes, such as exercise and eating a well-balanced diet. Even if your doctor prescribes statins, these medications aren’t a replacement for healthy habits.