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Can cholesterol-lowering statin drugs cause memory problems?

Consumer Reports News: September 14, 2012 02:38 PM

Several recent press articles indicate possible ill effects of statin drugs on the brain, especially with regard to cognitive capabilities. As an 86-year-old male, generally in good health, but taking 20 mg of simvastatin daily, what should I know about this, even before discussing it with my physician?

A: All cholesterol-lowering medications called statins, including the one you take, simvastatin (Zocor and generic), can rarely cause memory loss. That's according to the Food and Drug Administration, which added that risk to the package insert label of statins earlier this year in February.

The memory risk warning is based on the FDA's review of studies and reports it has received of rare cases of memory loss or impairment after taking statins. The memory problems, which occurred in people over the age of 50, went away when the statin was stopped. The FDA said the memory loss did not appear to be linked to a person's age or the dose of statin they took. In some cases, people developed memory problems one day after taking a statin while others did not experience problems until they had been on a statin for years.

While they reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in appropriate patients, they can cause other side effects, including quite serious ones such as an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. For example, an analysis of 13 studies published in the journal The Lancet in February 2010 found a 9 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes in people who used statins. Statins can also cause a rare condition that can lead to kidney failure and possibly death, called rhabdomylosis. More common complaints during statin use include muscular aches and pains, some severe enough to interrupt treatment.

Many people with high cholesterol are able to reduce it to healthy levels by exercising, modifying their diet, losing weight, and other lifestyle changes, without the need for medication. Since you already take a statin, and if you are at low-risk for a heart attack or stroke, ask your doctor if making these sorts of lifestyle changes might allow you to lower your dose, which might in turn reduce your risk of some other side effects or possibly even allow you to discontinue the statin. Additional risk factors your doctor should take into consideration include whether or not you are obese, are a smoker, have diabetes, have high blood pressure, or have a family history of heart disease.


Important safety label changes to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs [FDA Safety Announcement]

Additional links
Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs Report: Treating high cholesterol with statin drugs [Consumer Reports]

Steve Mitchell

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