Statins are a class of drugs often prescribed by doctors to help lower cholesterol levels in the blood. By lowering the levels, they help prevent heart attacks and stroke. Studies show that, in certain people, statins reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and even death from heart disease by about 25% to 35%. Studies also show that statins can reduce the chances of recurrent strokes or heart attacks by about 40%.
Who Should Take Statin Drugs?
Estimates are that in addition to the people already taking them, another 15 to 20 million people should be taking statin drugs based on their risk factors for heart disease. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to determine the amount of cholesterol in your blood. If you have high levels of LDL ("bad”) cholesterol, you have a greater chance of heart disease, especially when there are other factors that increase your risk. Based on your overall risk, your doctor may recommend you take statins to help lower your cholesterol by a certain percentage.
However, not all cholesterol is bad. It's good, for instance, to have high levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. HDL cholesterol prevents plaque buildup in the arteries by transporting the bad (LDL) cholesterol out of the blood to the liver. There, it is eliminated from the body.
How Do Statin Drugs Work?
Statin drugs work by blocking the action of the liver enzyme that is responsible for producing cholesterol. Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause a buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries. That buildup can eventually cause the arteries to narrow or harden. Sudden blood clots in these narrowed arteries can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Statins lower LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. At the same time, they lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Statins may also help to stabilize plaques in the arteries. That makes heart attacks less likely.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle while taking a statin can improve the effectiveness of the drug. Be sure to:
Are There Side Effects of Statin Drugs?
Most people who take statin drugs tolerate them very well. But some people experience side effects.
The most common statin side effects include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Flushing of the skin
- Muscle aches, tenderness, or weakness (myalgia)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal cramping or pain
- Bloating or gas
Statins also carry warnings that memory loss, mental confusion, neuropathy, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes are possible side effects. It's important to remember that statins may also interact with other medications you take.
Which Statin Side Effects Are Serious?
Statins are associated with a few rare, but potentially serious, side effects including:
- Myositis, inflammation of the muscles. The risk of muscle injury increases when certain other medications are taken with statins. For example, if you take a combination of a statin and a fibrate -- another cholesterol-reducing drug -- the risk of muscle damage increases greatly compared to someone who takes a statin alone.
- Elevated levels of CPK, or creatine kinase, a muscle enzyme that when elevated, can cause muscle pain, mild inflammation, and muscle weakness. This condition, though uncommon, can take a long time to resolve.
- Rhabdomyolysis , extreme muscle inflammation and damage. With this condition, muscles all over the body become painful and weak. The severely damaged muscles release proteins into the blood that collect in the kidneys. The kidneys can become damaged trying to eliminate a large amount of muscle breakdown caused by statin use. This can ultimately lead to kidney failure or even death. Fortunately, rhabdomyolysis is extremely rare. It occurs in less than one in 10,000 people taking statins.
Statin Warning Signs
If you experience any unexplained joint or muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness while taking statins, you should call your doctor immediately. Pregnant women or those with active or chronic liver disease should not use statins.
If you take a statin drug, tell your doctor about any over-the-counter or prescription drugs, herbal supplements, and vitamins you are currently taking or plan on taking.
Which Statins Are Approved for Use in the U.S.?
The statin medications that are approved for use in the U.S. include:
- Mevacor or Altocor
Since their arrival on the market, statins have been among the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. with about 17 million users.