Do the drugs known as statins get an unfair rap?

Do the drugs known as statins get an unfair rap?

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The FDA recently added a warning for memory impairment and diabetes risk

When statins were developed and approved, they were thought to be a drug class with a very clean side-effect profile. They are among the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S. Statins are used to treat high cholesterol and to prevent cardiovascular disease. Under the right circumstances, they can be quite effective. However, their side-effect profile is no longer considered benign or pristine.

The FDA, in a Feb. 28, press release, announced new warnings for statin labels related to memory loss and increased risk of diabetes. The one positive change to the label is that serial blood tests to monitor liver enzymes are no longer required when taking this class of drug (www.fda.gov).

Examples of statins include Lipitor (atorvastatin), Crestor (rosuvastatin), Zocor (simvastatin) and Vytorin (simvastatin/ezetimibe).

The heyday of statins: the JUPITER trial

In the JUPITER trial, which I mentioned in a previous article entitled “High cholesterol: a cautious tale on treatment” (June 23, 2011), it was shown that statins may lower the relative risk of heart attacks by 54 percent and strokes by 48 percent. This trial showed that statins were useful potentially for primary prevention; healthy patients without high cholesterol, but with moderately raised inflammation (high-sensitivity C-reactive protein of greater than 2.0 mg/l), may benefit from statin use (N Engl J Med 2008; 359:2195-2207).

However, controversy brews with statins. There was a meta-analysis (a group of 14 trials with over 34,000 patients) done that disputes the benefit of using statins for primary prevention. The authors concluded that, although statins reduced mortality in this setting, the benefit may not outweigh the risks and cost (Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; 1 [CD004816]).

Muscle-ache side effects

Ironically, the reason I wrote my previous article was mainly due to the FDA warning about using high dose simvastatin, 80 mg, and the increased risk of muscle aches and pains, referred to as myopathies (www.fda.gov). It seems that the higher the dose of any of the statins, not just simvastatin, the greater the chances of muscle-related pain (Pharmacotherapy. 2010 Jun;30(6):541-53).

Effects on exercise

It appears now that statins may interfere with exercise. Myopathies affect about 10 percent of the patients; however, that percentage increases to 25 percent of people who regularly exercise. Statins have a detrimental epigenetic effect, which means they affect gene expression, with skeletal muscle. Genes associated with muscle building and repair in the legs were suppressed to some degree in healthy young patients taking statins (Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2005 Dec;25(12):2560-6).

The authors concluded that statins could potentially cause increased risk of muscle damage during and after exercise. This creates an unusual dynamic, since these results are in stark contrast to the recommendations that all Americans exercise.

The diabetes evidence

The JUPITER trial showed that healthy participants had a 27 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes from the use of statins (N Engl J Med 2008; 359:2195-2207).
This was reinforced by the Women’s Health Initiative study. The results of this study showed an adjusted 48 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes in postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79 taking statins (Arch Intern Med. 2012 Jan 23;172(2):144-52). The authors emphasize a need for lifestyle changes. There were 153,000 women in the WHI study. It did not matter which statin was used — it was a class effect.

Mild cognitive impairment data

It appears that statins may be associated with mild cognitive impairment, including memory loss and confusion in patients who are susceptible. In a large case series involving 171 patients, approximately 75 percent of cognitive decline was most likely related to statin use. In this group, 143 patients stopped statins, and 90 percent of them subsequently recorded significant improvements in cognitive functioning. According to the authors, the higher the dose, the more pronounced the memory loss and confusion became (Pharmacotherapy. 2009 Jul;29(7):800-11).

What can be done?

Lifestyle modification may provide significant results in a short time. A patient in my practice, who adopted intensive lifestyle modifications, including increasing fiber, lowered his total cholesterol and his LDL (“bad”) cholesterol dramatically over only two weeks. Increasing fiber has been shown to decrease heart disease through lowering of cholesterol and lowering blood pressure (Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2003 Nov;5(6):500-5).

The good news with the side effects is that they seem to be transient and dose related, meaning the higher the dose, the greater the side effects. After stopping statins, symptoms from side effects seem to dissipate, although time frames for this vary.

In many cases, statins’ benefits still outweigh their side effects. They can be highly effective in treating high cholesterol and preventing heart attacks and strokes. However, lifestyle modifications should either be done in concert with these drugs or as the first line of therapy before statins are initiated.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.