Reality Check: Are Statins Safe and Effective?
Statins are a group of medicines that reduce the level of cholesterol in a person’s blood. One in 4 Americans older than age 40 takes a statin. Yet, despite being widely prescribed, statins are often misunderstood. Many people have doubts about how well they work or how safe they are. Below, we’ve fact-checked some common concerns.
Myth: Statins don’t have a big impact on your health.
Truth: You can’t directly see or feel how a statin is helping. But inside your body, it’s hard at work. Excess cholesterol in your blood can build up in your arteries and lead to cardiovascular disease. Statins help prevent this from occurring by reducing levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol.
Taking a statin as prescribed may lower your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. If you already have heart disease, it may also reduce your risk of needing a procedure such as a stent placement (a small tube put inside a clogged artery and left there permanently to prop it open).
Myth: These drugs cause a lot of serious side effects.
Truth: Concerns about side effects are the reason people most often give for turning down or stopping statin therapy. But a report from the American Heart Association offers reassuring news: Combing through dozens of studies, the report authors found that severe side effects are rare. For example, serious liver damage occurs in only about 1 in 100,000 statin users.
The likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes may be slightly increased in people taking a statin. However, most of those affected were already at high risk for diabetes before ever starting the drug. Overall, for people who need statin therapy, the report authors concluded that the benefits of taking the medicine far outweigh the risks.
Myth: Statins are likely to make your muscles hurt.
Truth: People often blame statins for causing muscle pain, cramping, aches, and weakness. Yet rigorous research shows that less than 1% of statin users have muscle symptoms due to the medicine. What’s behind this discrepancy?
In some cases, it may be a coincidence when muscle complaints and statin use occur together. Both are common in middle-aged and older adults. In other cases, people may perceive muscle symptoms simply because that’s what they expect to feel. Scientists refer to this as the nocebo effect. (It’s the opposite of the placebo effect, in which people improve even when taking a sugar pill because that’s what they expect to happen.)
In reality, taking a statin is considerably safer and more effective than many people realize. If your healthcare provider suggests starting a statin, have a conversation about it. Ask him or her to help you weigh the pros and cons of statin therapy for you.