Health & wellness

Daily Dose

How common is memory loss as a side effect of statins?

Statins - which include Lipitor (atorvastatin), Zocor (simvastatin), and Crestor (rosuvastatin) - are relatively safe drugs, and they’ve saved thousands of lives over the past 20 years, particularly in men with established heart disease. But like any drug they can cause problems in some, including muscle aches, an increased risk of diabetes, and, gaining recent attention, memory loss.

Unfortunately, the exact incidence of memory problems isn’t known. Manufacturer-sponsored clinical trials show that they occur in fewer than 1 percent of users, but statin researcher Dr. Paul Thompson, chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital, said the real incidence is probably much higher and can range from dementia-like symptoms to deficits in short-term memory. He plans to publish a study on the incidence later this year.

The slight increase in type 2 diabetes risk is more well-established, but experts agree that in people at high risk for heart disease, the increased diabetes risk is outweighed by the statin’s protection against heart attacks and deaths from any cause.

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The danger of muscle destruction from statins - which can damage the liver and kidneys - is also clear but slight. According to Thompson, about 1 in every 1,000 statin users will develop severely elevated levels of the enzyme creatine kinase, which indicates muscle death, and only 1 in 10 million die from developing an extremely severe case of the condition called rhabdomyolysis. Muscle aches are far more common: occurring in about 1 in 10 statin takers, according to Thompson, and are more likely in women, the elderly, and those who exercise.