Sales of statin cholesterol-lowering drugs produce huge profits for drug companies. Global sales this year alone are expected to hit about a trillion dollars.
But as a report from Australia published in the journal the British Journal of Sports Medicine warns, “There are concerns that the benefits have been exaggerated and the risks have been underplayed. Also, the raw data on the efficacy and safety of statins are being kept secret and have not been subjected to scrutiny by other scientists.”1
Particularly concerning: The worrisome ways in which statins may influence your brain.
The research on this subject is controversial. But despite Big Pharma’s insistence that statins are safe, studies have pointed to memory-robbing side effects. Just for the record, I’ve been warning people away from them for years.
Years ago there were anecdotal reports that statin drugs send some people into serious memory loss and even full-blown dementia. One of the victims, a medical doctor who was an astronaut for NASA, even wrote a best-selling book on his experience called Lipitor: Thief of Memory. (Fortunately, he recovered his mind after he stopped taking the drugs.)
But individual case studies are never the last word, and unfortunately there have only been a few studies on what exactly happens to brain tissue when you take statins.
A 2019 review study from the Swinburne Center of Psychopharmacology in Australia “identified three randomized trials, an observational study and 66 case reports that provided credible evidence of statin-induced cognitive impairment.”2
This review led the researchers to conclude “that statin-induced cognitive decline does exist, needs to be better recognized and requires more studies of prevention and treatment.”
They believe one of the reasons statins are a brain threat grows out of the fact that these drugs impair the body’s ability to make CoQ10. CoQ10 is an antioxidant that protects mitochondria (cellular organelles that produce energy) from oxidative damage.
Statin drugs’ interference with CoQ10, say the scientists, increases oxidative stress in the brain and reduces energy production in brain cells. The reduced energy may slow brain function. (The side effect has been known for many years, and many experts encourage statin-takers to use CoQ10 supplements to maintain the body’s supply. In fact, at one time drug makers had a patent on a statin with CoQ10 in it.)3
You Need Cholesterol
Another problem is that cholesterol happens to be one of the biggest constituents of brain tissue, and reducing our cholesterol levels is not necessarily a good idea.
Because statins hold back the body’s production of cholesterol, they also inhibit what’s called the “myelination” of the brain’s neurons and other nerve cells in the body. Myelination refers to the creation of a certain kind of sheath – the myelin sheath – around nerves that quickens the movement of nerve impulses.
Studies show that problems with myelination, which occur during a disease like multiple sclerosis, can make it harder to control muscular movement, dim your vision and generally make it harder to function with the tasks of everyday life.4
Another disturbing study, this one performed at the University of Rochester Medical Center, shows that statins may interfere with stem cells in the brain that are responsible for forming what are called astrocytes and oligodendrocytes.
Oligodendrocytes make up myelin sheaths while astrocytes secrete proteins that influence brain plasticity – how well neurons form new networks to help you learn and retain new information.5
Under normal circumstances, the brain stem cells examined by the University of Rochester researchers can mature into either astrocytes or oligodendrocytes. But their analysis shows that statins may make a large majority of the cells become oligodendrocytes, allowing only a very few to become astrocytes.
The researchers say that no one knows what this change in brain stem cells might mean for long term brain health. The stem cells are supposed to be available to help the brain recover from infections, hemorrhages, strokes, concussion and inflammation. If, as their lab test indicates, the stem cells mostly can’t turn into astrocytes, it could prove damaging to memory and the recovery of other cognitive abilities after an illness.6
More Side Effects
Other disturbing potential statin side effects include:
Increased risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)-like conditions: ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects neurons in the spinal cord and results in muscle atrophy and extreme weakness. A study in California shows that your risk for muscle weakness resembling that found in ALS is significantly increased when you take a statin. Unlike ALS, which has no cure, a statin-linked muscle weakness can usually be reversed when you stop taking the drug.7
Disturbed sleep and increased aggression: Research at the University of California at San Diego shows that statins can make it harder to sleep and may also make you more aggressive – although the aggressive effect was primarily found in women.8 (In the study, men actually became less aggressive.)
All of this research tells me that we should be wary of statins. They are supposed to protect your heart health by lowering your LDL cholesterol – which is reputed to be “bad” cholesterol. In reality, it’s questionable whether or not these drugs protect your heart or whether lowering your LDL cholesterol is a good thing anyway. An international review study involving more than 68,000 elderly people actually found that people with higher LDL levels generally outlive folks with lower amounts.9
I am a long-time skeptic of the whole cholesterol theory of heart disease, and I do not take statin drugs despite the fact that my cholesterol is high. My high cholesterol makes me a little nervous – believe me, I get ragged about it a lot by doctors. But I will NOT take statins.
As I’ve often said before, I can’t make any specific recommendations to you about your need to take or not to take prescription medications. All I can tell you is that for me the alleged benefits of these drugs are nowhere near convincing enough to be worth the risks.