By Suzanne Robotti, Founder/President, MedShadow, Special to Everyday Health
Statins are so universally popular with doctors that I’ve heard one claim “they” should put “statins in the drinking water.” Statins lower cholesterol which is a good thing because high cholesterol can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. Heart attacks are the No. 1 killer in the US for men and women. So why was I so determined to get my husband Bob to stop taking them?
In Bob’s case, the doctor had suggested he start on statins as a precaution — as a sedentary, middle-aged man with slightly high cholesterol, it was well within the guidelines. There was no discussion of losing weight or eating more healthfully, either of which might have lowered his cholesterol naturally. To be fair, it’s possible the doctor did suggest it and Bob didn’t listen.
The statins worked great. Without changing his lifestyle one bit, Bob’s cholesterol dropped to within normal limits. Talk about having your cake and eating it too!
But statins are not side-effect free. Complaints of memory loss and muscle aches are common. Bob’s brain was very important to me and I watched him carefully for signs of memory loss. Casually I’d ask, “Bob, what was name of the street we lived on when we were in Fleetwood?” or “What’s your mom’s telephone number again?” Pretty soon he was accusing me of dementia!
About two years of taking statins, I noticed him rubbing the top of his thighs. He acknowledged that his muscles ached. That’s when my campaign to stop statins started in earnest. Muscle aches are not only the No. 1 side effect of statins, but severe muscle aches can indicate the onset of myositis (an inflammation of the muscles) or an even more serious condition called rhabdomyolysis (destruction of muscle cells), which is the destruction of muscle cells and can result in potentially life-threatening kidney injury. Both are rare, but not unheard of. (For a more complete information on side effects see Need to Know: Statins)
I had just started a nonprofit, MedShadow Foundation. Our mission is to educate the public about the side effects of medicines. On our site, I started researching statins more carefully. I found that initially statins were only approved for people who had a first heart attack in order to prevent a second. It wasn’t long before doctors started prescribing statins for those at high risk of a second heart attack. And under the 2013 new guidelines, nearly 40% of all American adults qualify to take statins.
But some researchers are questioning just how effective statins are. Without question, they lower cholesterol, but it hasn’t been proven that lowering cholesterol leads to an increased life expectancy. Mortality from heart attacks have dropped, but many factors could affect that, including smoking cessation, implatable defibrulators and better emergency care. Cardiovascular health is very complicated. Clinical trials of statins are inconsistent with some showing increased mortality, but others not.
This new side effect of muscle aches had us both worried. There are other side effects of statins that even though rare, now seemed more possible: diabetes and liver damage. When Bob called his doctor to ask about stopping statins and try to lower his cholesterol through a better diet, the doctor agreed immediately.
They made a plan to check his cholesterol now and again in six months. In the meantime, Bob changed his diet to add fish and drop desserts, most of the time. He was at an age when many men lose muscle mass and that bothered him, so he voluntarily started going to the gym.
Six months later, Bob’s cholesterol and blood pressure both checked out perfectly – and he’d lost about five pounds. It’s been about five years and his doctor hasn’t suggested statins again.
Statins are usually a lifetime sentence. People who can tolerate them, which is most people, never stop. I worried about the long-term effect of statins on the liver. Livers handle the extra strain of modern medicines well in general. But as we age, most of us will need some drugs to keep us healthy and active. That was my last, but most important reason to stop the statins. The fewer drugs he takes through his lifetime will limit the strain on his liver today. That will allow the drugs he needs in the future to work more effectively.
For many people who are prescribed a statin, it may be necessary. In many cases — like with my husband — they are not necessary. In fact, changes in diet and exercise may be all that is needed to lower cholesterol. Even better, these changes don’t have the negative side effects that statins do.
Someday, diet and exercise may not be enough and Bob may need statins again. I might need them too. I’m glad they and so many other life saving drugs exist. But I believe that medicines are tools that can be overused. As much as possible, I continue to encourage my husband, my family and friends to consider the risks of taking medicines — all of them have side effects. Learn for my husband’s experience — please consider reasonable alternatives before starting on a medicine.