Statins are some of the drugs most often prescribed in the United States. They are an effective tool in the prevention of stroke and heart disease, but last year, stories circulating in the media about statins and memory loss caused confusion among patients.
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A recent, comprehensive review of multiple studies failed to find evidence that statins cause memory loss. In fact, some studies indicate that statins can even have memory-protective effects.
Initial concerns raised
Confusion and concern among patients arose last year after stories surfaced about statin takers who said that their mental sharpness declined after starting the drug.
Following these reports, the FDA mandated that labeling on statins must include information about possible links between statin use and memory loss.
After the FDA ruling, several studies, including two large, randomized trials, found no evidence that linked statin use to memory problems. Steven Nissen, MD, chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, concurs. “Cognitive side effects have not been detected in randomized controlled trials of statin therapy.”
Despite the evidence, some patients still were concerned and uncertain about whether to continue their statin medication.
Statistical analysis: statins don’t cause memory deficits
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University performed a comprehensive review of 12 published studies on statins in which information on short-term memory was available and published their findings in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
The good news: there was no evidence that short-term use of statins hurts memory and cognition.
The better news: long-term statin use can have a protective effect on memory and cognition.
Studies on short-term use showed no difference in memory function between those people who took statins and people who did not take statins (placebo group), with both groups having normal cognitive function at the start of the trials.
Following an analysis of long-term statin use trials results, researchers found no link whatsoever between the use of statins and increased risk of dementia. The study included more than 23,000 participants and studies published over seven years.
Five studies actually showed a protective effect of long-term statin use on memory and cognition. Dr. Nissen did not participate in the study but reviewed it, and says that intuitively this finding makes sense. “Statins work to lower blood lipids and prevent the buildup of unstable plaque, and we understand that keeping the blood vessels that supply the brain clear and free is important in preventing cognitive decline and in the prevention of stroke. It makes sense that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain,” he says.
Conclusions and confidence
Statins are memory-safe, as shown by multiple rigorous studies and meta-analysis. Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, head of Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, says, “Randomized clinical trials examining statin usage in dementia or pre-dementia show — if anything — a significant protective effect. That does not mean that some people, on an individual basis, may not note memory issues on statins…if it happens, we adjust regimen for lipid lowering accordingly.”
As is the case with any medication, statins can cause side effects. In general, statins are well tolerated, safe and effective. Patients should feel confident that statins do not hurt their memory or mental sharpness, “and even the warnings about muscle aches and diabetes need to be weighed against the fact that the drugs are proven to lower risk for heart attack and stroke,” emphasizes Dr. Nissen.
As Dr. Hazen summarizes, “Statins still are the single most effective interventions for preventing cardiovascular disease and saving lives.”