Side Effects of Statins and Dementia

There is overwhelming evidence that statin drugs lower total cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke. They may have some side effects, but memory loss and dementia are not ones you need to worry about.

cholesterol medication statin side effects

Memory loss is not a statin side effect to worry about. In fact, they may reduce dementia by reducing mini strokes.

© rogerashford | Getty Images

Based on some early studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) added a warning on statin drug labels that they may cause memory loss and confusion in some people. [1] This warning led to fears that statin drugs might increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia. [2] However, more recent research has flipped that warning around. [2,3]

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, a recent review of data from 11 studies including over 23 thousand people found that people taking statins for 3 to 25 years reduced their risk of developing dementia by 29 percent. These studies support other studies that show people who have high cholesterol in mid-life are at higher risk for dementia. [3]

Statin drugs like Lipitor, Crestor, and Zocor reduce total cholesterol by blocking your liver from making cholesterol. Your liver then takes cholesterol out of your blood, lowering the cholesterol associated with an increased risk for stroke, heart attacks, and dementia. [1,4] Since statins reduce stroke risk, they may also reduce dementia by reducing mini strokes that can lead to dementia. [2]

Other Side Effects of Statins

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost half of people who could benefit from statins are not taking them. One reason is fear of statin side effects. However, many of these fears are not based on reality. [3] These are three known statin side effects: [1,3,4]

  • Muscle Pains or Damage. Muscle aches, pain, weakness, or soreness are among the most common side effects reported by people taking statins. Studies show that statins cause muscle symptoms in up to five percent of people. However, because these muscle symptoms are generally very common, many more people assume muscle pain is caused by their statin drug. Studies show that when people taking a statin are compared to people taking a placebo, about the same number of people in both groups report muscle symptoms.
  • Liver Damage or Inflammation. This side effect is also rare and sometimes mild enough to continue using a statin. It may be more common or severe in people who already have a liver condition, like fatty liver, or need to take high doses of statins. Symptoms may include fatigue, loss of appetite, upper-right belly pain, or jaundice. Jaundice causes yellow skin or eyes and dark-colored urine.
  • Increased Blood Sugar. Blood sugar may go up slightly in some people. This is not a problem unless you already have high blood sugar. Although it is possible that higher blood sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes, most doctor believe that the risk of diabetes is outweighed by the benefits of statins, even for people who have diabetes.

 Bottom Line on Statin Risks and Benefits

Your doctor may prescribe a statin drug based on your cholesterol numbers and your risk factors for heart attack or stroke. Risk factors include your family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight. The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association provide guidelines doctors use to calculate your risk and determine if you would benefit from taking a statin. [4]

You should talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits before you start taking a statin. For most people, the benefits will outweigh the risks. However, some people are at higher risk for side effects of cholesterol medication. These risks include:

  • Needing to take more than one medication to lower cholesterol
  • Being female or having a small body size
  • Having liver or kidney disease
  • Being in your 80s or older
  • Being a heavy alcohol drinker

Always report any possible statin side effects to your doctor, but don’t stop taking a statin on your own. If you do have a side effect, your doctor may stop your medication to see if the side effect goes away, switch to a different statin drug, or lower your dose. [1] Finally, keep in mind that taking a statin or not, lifestyle changes are key to reducing your risk for heart attack and stroke. These include: [4]

  • Not smoking
  • A healthy diet high fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in sugar, salt, and saturated fats
  • Regular exercise
  • A healthy weight

Sources

  1. Mayo Clinic, Statins: Are these cholesterol-lowering drugs right for you? – Mayo Clinic
  2. AARP, 3 Top Statin Myths Debunked (aarp.org)
  3. Alzheimer’s Society, Cholesterol and dementia | Alzheimer’s Society (alzheimers.org.uk)
  4. Mayo Clinic, Statin side effects: Weigh the benefits and risks – Mayo Clinic

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Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

View all posts by Chris Iliades, MD

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