By Robert Preidt
MONDAY, June 8, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Even though some early research suggested that people who take statin drugs might experience short-term memory loss, a large new study finds they are no worse for recall than other cholesterol-lowering medications.
According to researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of Pennsylvania, prior, limited research and anecdotal information from patients had hinted that statins might cause memory problems -- leading some patients to stop taking the drugs.
To investigate the issue, a team led by Brian Strom, chancellor of Biomedical and Health Sciences at Rutgers, analyzed data from nearly 1 million patients. The researchers compared memory changes in three groups: Patients who recently started taking statins, those taking other cholesterol-lowering drugs, and people not taking any cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Compared to nonusers, more patients taking statins reported memory loss in the 30 days after first taking the drugs, Strom's team found. However, the same was true of patients who took other cholesterol-lowering drugs. An "observational" study like this one also can't prove cause and effect, experts note.
In a Rutgers news release, Strom said that the new finding could mean "that anything that lowers cholesterol has the same effect on short-term memory." However, he believes that theory is "not scientifically credible," because of the wide differences in the chemical structures of various cholesterol-lowering medications.
The more likely explanation is "detection bias," which means that patients taking a new drug visit their doctors more often and are therefore paying closer attention to their health, Strom said.
"When patients are put on statins or any new drug, they're seen more often by their doctor, or they themselves are paying attention to whether anything is wrong," he explained. "So if they have a memory problem, they're going to notice it.
"Even if it has nothing to do with the drug, they're going to blame it on the drug," Strom added.
The study was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and was published June 8 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Previous studies have actually shown that statins might improve long-term memory, Strom noted.
The bottom line: "You shouldn't worry about short-term memory problems from any statins and, long-term, we know they improve memory," he said.
Statins are a "very effective therapy" and "very safe," Strom said. "No drug is completely safe. But it has an opportunity to dramatically reduce heart disease in the country. People shouldn't steer away from the drug because of false fear of memory problems."