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Sharp Health News

The truth about statins

July 26, 2019

The truth about statins
Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, is known as the “bad” cholesterol, even though — at the right level — it plays an important role in keeping us healthy. LDL cholesterol helps to build healthy cells, create hormones and vitamin D, and digest food.

However, healthy bodies produce just the amount of cholesterol needed. Any extra cholesterol can clog arteries and, if allowed to build up, can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Family history and unhealthy lifestyle choices can lead to high cholesterol
While genetics, age and having diabetes might lead to elevated cholesterol levels, extra cholesterol is commonly due to poor lifestyle choices.

These include:
  • Unhealthy diet — high in sodium and saturated fats, and low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Obesity
Therefore, if you have high cholesterol, your doctor is likely to recommend that you make some lifestyle changes, such as eat a healthy diet, make sure you get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days, quit smoking and maintain a healthy weight. You may also be prescribed statins, a common drug designed to reduce your cholesterol.

Statins lower cholesterol and save lives
Statins block a specific enzyme inside cholesterol-producing cells, resulting in less cholesterol being produced and released into the bloodstream. Statins can also reduce the inflammation caused by high cholesterol within blood vessel walls.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), statins are the only cholesterol-lowering drug class that has been directly associated with a reduction in the risk of heart attack or stroke. Studies show that roughly 1 in 4 Americans are appropriately prescribed statins; however, not all of those people continue to take their prescribed medications or take the prescribed amount, which can be very problematic.

The benefits of statins far outweigh the risk of side effects
“Unfortunately, some patients do not take their prescribed statins, as they worry about the reported side effects,” says Dr. Andy Dang, a board-certified internal medicine doctor and medical director of population health with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Statins have been shown to lower the blood cholesterol as well as reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and death in patients with heart disease.”

There are a few side effects people associate with statins, but reports are generally grossly exaggerated, and experts are quick to offer a counterbalance to these concerns. Myths about statins include the following:

  • Myth #1: Statins cause muscle pain and weakness.
    Nine out of 10 people taking statins do not report any muscle-related concerns. In the 10% that experience some muscle pain, dosage can usually be adjusted or a different statin can be prescribed.

  • Myth #2: Statins lead to an increased risk for diabetes.
    Blood sugar may slightly increase while using statins, but this is significantly offset by the decreased heart disease risk that statins provide.

  • Myth #3: People who take statins are at an increased risk for dementia.
    Many patients who take statins are of advanced age and any perceived changes in cognition may be due to aging. Statins may actually protect against hardening of the arteries in the brain, often the cause of dementia, thus preventing — rather than causing — dementia.
In general, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) reports that statins are well tolerated and 90% of patients report no side effects. The ACC goes on to recommend that while possible side effects of statins should be considered, the benefits of lowering cholesterol with statins far outweigh the low likelihood of an adverse effect for the vast majority of adults, especially those at high risk of heart attack or stroke.

“Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking statins,” says Dr. Dang. “Patients taking certain medications are at higher risk for side effects, so they should discuss this with their doctors. However, the beneficial effects of statins on cardiovascular events and mortality usually far outweigh any increased risk.”

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