Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of death in the US, and cholesterol plays a major role in its development. Cholesterol can be controlled with statin drugs, a common treatment for many people.
You may think of cholesterol as just a number, but higher levels can affect your cardiovascular system. In addition to lowering cholesterol, using statins has other benefits. Research has shown that statins may reduce the incidence of heart attack, stroke, and death in people without cardiovascular disease. In fact, statins have a primary role in cardiovascular disease prevention.
Like most medications, statins have a good and bad side. In most cases, the benefits outweigh the risks. Here is some information about statins that will make you think beyond your cholesterol number.
How Do Statins Work?
Statins are used to treat high cholesterol. High levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL, the bad cholesterol) combined with low levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the good cholesterol) can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherolsclerosis is a hardening of the arteries due to a build up of plaque on the inner walls. It is a condition that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Statin drugs, like atorvastatin, pravastatin, and simvastatin, work by inhibiting a liver enzyme that is involved in the production of cholesterol. They are most effective at lowering levels of LDL cholesterol and may also contribute to increasing levels of HDL cholesterol.
Statins have become a popular choice to treat cholesterol problems because they are effective and generally well-tolerated.
What Are the Health Benefits?
Researchers have investigated other potential health benefits of taking statins. There is evidence that statins may reduce the risk of:
- Heart attack and death in people with heart disease with or without high cholesterol
- Cardiovascular events and death in people who are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease
- Heart attack, stroke, and death in people with elevated levels of C-reactive protein, a sign of inflammation in the body
- Cardiovascular events in women who have cardiovascular disease
- Surgery to improve blood flow to the heart and unstable angina in women
Statins may also help lower blood pressure.
What Are the Risks?
If your doctor prescribes statins, some common side effects that you may have include:
Serious possible side effects are rare, but may include:
- Memory loss and confusion
- Increased blood sugar levels, may increase risk of diabetes
- Liver damage—Taking statins can lead to changes in liver enzymes and occasionally liver damage.
- Muscle pain or weakness—Some people who take statins develop muscle damage. With severe cases, your body may release the protein myoglobin, which can damage the kidneys.
- Cancer—There have been numerous scientific studies about the use of statins and the risk of cancer, but the evidence is conflicting.
As with any medication there may also be a risk of an interaction with other medications.
If you have cholesterol problems, have coronary artery disease, or are at risk for coronary artery disease, your doctor will weight the benefits and risk of taking medications like statins. Be sure to discuss your medical history and any concerns that you may have about taking this kind of medication. Keep in mind, too, that a healthy cardiovascular system depends on more than just taking statins. Your doctor will most likely recommend that you make lifestyle changes that include eating a healthier diet and exercising more.
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
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Last reviewed March 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 3/14/2017