The Scoop on Statins: What Do You Need to Know?


Why is it important to understand the benefits and risks of statins?

Most heart attacks and strokes are preventable by practicing a healthy lifestyle and when necessary, by taking medications to lower blood pressure or cholesterol or to help quit smoking. Statins, when used as indicated, can dramatically reduce a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke, but millions of people are missing that opportunity. Some clinicians may miss prescribing a statin to a person who can benefit. Many times, individuals stop or do not start taking a statin due to concerns about side effects. The good news is that understanding your individual benefits and risks and working through your concerns with your clinician can help you live free of these preventable events and enjoy a longer, healthier life.

What is a statin and how does it work?

Statins are a class of medicines used to lower cholesterol. While some of the cholesterol in your blood comes from food, most is made by the liver. Statins work by reducing the amount of cholesterol made by the liver and helping the liver remove cholesterol that is already in the blood. Statins may also reduce inflammation in the walls of arteries. This inflammation can lead to blockages that damage organs like your heart and brain.

What are the benefits of statins?

Scientific studies and years of use all over the world have proven that statins, when used as indicated by current guidelines, reduce a person’s chances of having a heart attack or stroke; of needing surgery, angioplasty, or stenting to improve blood flow in an artery; and of dying from a heart attack. The higher a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke, the stronger the benefit of the statin. The benefit is also greater the longer the statin is taken. In general, taking a statin can cut a person’s risk of a heart attack or stroke in half.

What are the risks of a statin?

Serious risks are rare. Studies involving thousands of people show no differences in muscle aches, liver abnormalities, dementia, memory problems, or cancer between those taking a statin and those on an inactive pill. There are very uncommon risks associated with statins including a type of stroke caused by bleeding, muscle damage that can usually be detected with a blood test, and diabetes, in a small number of people prone to develop diabetes. While muscle aches and soreness are a commonly mentioned side effect, it is important to note that these muscle aches and weakness are common complaints among active individuals and as people age, whether or not they are taking a statin.

How can side effects be managed when taking a statin?

Side effects from statins can frequently be managed by adjustments in the dose or by choosing a different statin drug. Before stopping or changing your medication, please discuss your concerns with your clinician. Together you can map out a practical plan to keep you safe from heart attack and stroke.

Who should consider taking a statin?

People who have had a heart attack or stroke, who have diabetes or very high “bad” cholesterol levels, and who are at high risk for heart disease or stroke due to other factors like high blood pressure will live healthier and longer lives by taking a statin. Because the size of the benefit from a statin varies with your chances of having a heart attack or stroke, it is important to discuss your individual risks and preferences with your healthcare professional. Together you can make a good decision for your healthiest future.

What should I discuss with my clinician?

  • What are my “good” and “bad” cholesterol levels?
  • What is my personal risk of a heart attack or stroke?
  • For me, is the benefit worth the risk?
  • How—and how soon—will we know that the statin is working for me?
  • Can I quit or decrease the statin if I lose weight? Exercise daily? Eat differently?
  • How soon could I feel a side effect and what should I do about it?
  • How often will I need follow up blood tests or check-ups?
  • What is the next step if a statin doesn’t work or if I can’t take it?

Where can I learn more?

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