If you’re among the more than 24 million Americans who take a cholesterol-lowering statin, now hear this: Don’t stop these heart-protecting drugs on your own! In a recent study from Denmark, people who did just that increased their risk for a heart attack by 26 percent and boosted the odds for a deadly cardiovascular event by 18 percent.
Unfortunately, those researchers also found that many folks quit taking their meds after the recent avalanche of scary news stories about statins’ side effects. Truth is, for most people, the heart- and life-protecting benefits far outweigh the risks. But an Internet search might lead you to falsely believe the opposite is true.
As the Cleveland Clinic’s world-renowned cardiologist Steven Nissen, M.D., pointed out after the Danish study was published: “If you really want to see [the negative reporting], all you have to do is go to Google. A search for ‘statin benefits’ results in 1,140,000 hits, whereas one for ‘statin side effects’ gives 6,480,000 hits.”
What’s going on? As more and more North Americans take statins (at least 26 percent of people over age 40, and 48 percent over age 74 do, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), controversies about statins’ effects on muscles, memory, blood sugar and the liver have flared.
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Now, we think you should understand statins’ benefits as well as their signs of trouble. No medication is without risk. If the statin you take negatively affects you, you may need to switch to a different dose or a different statin, and maybe even a few of you need to stop completely. In the meantime here’s what you need to know.
Recognize the benefits. According to the Statin Diabetes Safety Task Force, these drugs lower risk for a heart attack, stroke and death by 25 to 30 percent. They work by reducing levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol and also by cooling off heart- and brain-threatening inflammation. There’s evidence that statin users have lower risk for dementia, too. These drugs also can slash heart-attack risk by 50 percent if you have healthy LDL cholesterol levels but have high levels of body-wide inflammation.
Understand the risks. About 5 to 15 percent of statin users may experience muscle aches, tenderness and weakness. Smaller percentages may encounter more serious problems, including muscle damage, diabetes, liver damage and memory problems. Let your doctor know right away if you notice any potential signs of a problem, such as unexplained muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite, dark-colored urine or a yellowing of your skin or the whites of your eyes. And be sure your doctor knows all about any other medications you take; some can increase risk for statin side effects.
Don’t let negative news stories threaten your health. In that same Danish study, people who had started a statin recently were 9 percent more likely to let bad news coverage influence them to quit. If you have questions or concerns, call your doctor and let him or her know what you’re thinking. And again, don’t stop on your own. Quitting statins raises your risk of death from a heart attack or stroke, perhaps by fueling rebound inflammation and making the plaque in artery walls more likely to rupture.
Don’t get complacent. Some statin users figure wrongly that they don’t have to worry about their weight or what they eat. In fact, one national study found that statin users eat 10 percent more calories and 14 percent more fat now than statin users did 15 years ago. And they weigh more than non-statin users. That’s not smart, because slip-ups can increase your risk for high blood pressure and diabetes even though your statin is keeping your cholesterol in check.
Upgrade your lifestyle habits for even more protection. People who take statins and other drugs for cardiovascular disease can slash their five-year risk for a heart attack by an additional 22 percent by eating healthier, along with exercising and quitting smoking.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit www.sharecare.com.