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When is a statin needed to lower my cholesterol?

Cardiologist
Northshore Hospital, Long Island, N.Y.

Statins are wonderful medicines because even though they can cause a problem -- you can have a side effect as you can with any medicine -- you are safer taking the statin because it can reduce the risk of a heart attack or a stroke and can keep you alive.  

Often I hear patients express concerns: "But I hear so much on TV about all these side effects and risks and my liver and I have to have a blood test every year, and I don’t really like to pop a pill."

That’s a concern that is shared by many, and I’m not going to force you to take a pill. The truth is you’ve been having problems because of your cholesterol probably for the last 10 or 15 years as the plaques have been building up in the arteries of your heart. This is not a problem that just developed today. It’s just that your blood level of cholesterol is abnormal for the first time.

So we now have to have this discussion. The fact that you’ve heard about side effects of the medicine means that you’re well informed. That’s good, so you understand how important it is to come back and have that blood test. One of the great things that we’ve learned from a lot of the large trials that have been done with statins over three, four, five years of follow-up is that the amount of patients that actually have a problem is not all that different from placebo, in terms of patients with liver abnormalities. And we’re not talking about liver failure, needing a liver transplant, dying from liver dysfunction, having to change your lifestyle because of liver dysfunction. What we’re talking about here is an abnormality in the blood test that when we change the dose of your statin, or stop it, goes away. At the same time, statins are drugs that reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke substantially.