Statin Side Effects Often Manageable: Study
People who quit may do better with different type or dose of cholesterol-lowering drugs
Besides muscle and joint problems, other statin side effects include nausea, diarrhea and constipation. More serious problems have been reported -- such as liver damage and a dangerous breakdown of the muscle called rhabdomyolysis -- but they are rare.
Statins have also been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and to reports of memory problems in some users, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But it's not clear that the drugs are to blame.
Turchin said memory loss was reported for only 0.06 percent of patients in his study. "It was very uncommon in this group," he said.
Of all study patients who stopped their statin use due to side effects, nearly 60 percent tried again -- either the same statin or a different one. It's not clear why the other 40 percent did not.
"Maybe the patient didn't want to," Turchin said. "Or maybe the doctor didn't offer."
There are other ways to rein in high cholesterol. If LDL is moderately high, diet changes, exercise and shedding excess pounds may be enough. But for people who are at high risk of a heart attack -- because of past heart problems or conditions like diabetes -- doctors typically prescribe a statin right away.
It's estimated that about 5 percent to 10 percent of patients are truly "statin intolerant," said Dr. Scott Grundy, who wrote an editorial published with the study. If those patients are able to go back on a statin, it's often at a dose that doesn't cut LDL by much, said Grundy, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
But other types of cholesterol drugs might help, he added.
Drugs known as bile acid sequestrants and cholesterol absorption inhibitors can be used along with statins, according to the U.S National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
For her part, Narula said, "Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in this country. Our ability to treat high cholesterol is one of the great tools we have against it."
The study was funded by government and private grants. Turchin has received research funds from Merck, which makes Zocor and Mevacor.