The People's Perspective on Medicine

Will Statins Wreak Havoc With Your Memory?

Sometimes people fear that statins wreak havoc with cognitive function. A recent Australian study found no evidence of this effect.
Statins, Statin pills and a warning sign,

Do people taking statins to control their cholesterol experience cognitive impairment as a side effect? Many think so. If they anticipate that statins wreak havoc on their memory, they may be reluctant to take such drugs. Needless to say, cardiologists often find this regrettable (JAMA Cardiology, June 26, 2019). Most doctors are convinced that “Statin treatment does not adversely affect cognitive function” (European Heart Journal, July 14, 2018). Despite this, patients continue to report cognitive and memory problems (Advances in Therapy, Oct. 2019). 

Could Statins Wreak Havoc on Cognitive Capacity?

Australian scientists expressed concern that media reports and anecdotes discouraged people from taking statins (Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine, Aug. 2016). Consequently, they examined the results of an observational study to look for evidence of cognitive decline (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, online Nov, 18, 2019).

The Sydney Memory and Aging Study included more than 1,000 individuals who were between 70 and 90 at the start of the study. None of these people had dementia at the outset. The study organizers performed cognitive tests and physical examinations on the participants every two years.

In addition, about 500 of the volunteers agreed to have brain scans as part of the study. Roughly 400 underwent an additional scan two years later. 

No Evidence That Statins Wreak Havoc on Memory:

Upon analyzing these data, the investigators did not find statistical differences in cognitive skills between those taking statins and those not on the drugs. Moreover, the two-year changes in brain volume were also indistinguishable between people on statins and others.

There was one important exception: People with heart disease seemed to do better if they were taking a statin. The long-term effects of heart disease are deleterious for the brain.

The investigators concluded:

“In community-dwelling elderly Australians, statin therapy was not associated with any greater decline in memory or cognition over 6 years. These data are reassuring for consumers concerned about statin use and risk of memory decline.”

The People’s Pharmacy Perspective: 

We are pleased to learn that statin use was not associated with obvious cognitive decline in this cohort of Australian elders. However, we are not convinced that this study provides the final word on the question. A narrative review of research concluded that statins can, in some cases, cause cognitive impairment but in others they appear protective (Translational Neurodegeneration, Feb. 27, 2018). Randomized controlled trials do not provide evidence of either effect. The authors hypothesized that two independent mechanisms may account for the conflicting results. 

Some years ago, headlines suggested that statins might actually prevent dementia:

Furthermore, a different group of Australian researchers reported on their review of studies and case reports (Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, April 27, 2019). They proposed mechanisms such as reduced Coenzyme Q1o synthesis and depletion of myelin on nerves to explain the results they found.

Consequently, they concluded that statins wreak havoc on memory and cognition, at least in some individuals:

“We conclude that statin-induced cognitive decline does exist, needs to be better recognized and requires more studies of prevention and treatment.”

Many of our readers have noticed memory problems associated with statins. We acknowledge that these reports are anecdotal, but we suspect that such experiences color people’s attitudes toward these drugs.

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Mary Beth reported:

“My husband is only 57 and is having major memory problems. He was started on a statin in July 2017, and I first started noticing memory problems in August 2017. Now it is almost 2 years later, and he is having major memory problems. I just stopped his statin with the O.K. from his doctor 3 days ago.”

Winifred thinks a statin may be affecting her job performance:

“I have been on atorvastatin 6 wks now. My job entails acute attention to detail, as I assist individuals in completing applications for Medicare plans. These enrollments are also contracts, and must be accurate in all aspects. My work has always been exemplary. However, for the past month and a half, I have made several mistakes a week–mistakes of which I was unaware and did not catch on review of applications. I have felt increasingly incompetent and inadequate and have been considering quitting my job, attributing the issue to my aging brain. (I am 65.) It struck me today that this problem began occurring since I started taking atorvastatin.”

“In conversation with my husband, he acknowledged that he has noticed a difference in my functioning. Though he ‘could not put a finger on it,’ I have not been as sharp as he has always known me to be. He attributed it to getting older but noted the onset was relatively acute. How have I felt? Perhaps a little fuzzy and definitely not sharp! At this point, I am stopping this drug. I go to see my doctor tomorrow to let her know. I should also say that I am rather medication-sensitive, and my mother was acutely so.”

Our Conclusion:

We suspect that some people are far more susceptible to statin side effects than others. Many people get great benefit from these cholesterol-lowering drugs. Perhaps others, like Winifred, are more sensitive to the effects. This is not likely to show up in clinical trials or even in observational trials like the Sydney Memory and Aging Study. If both patients and doctors approached the potential value/harm equation of these medications without bias, those who benefit could do so. Conversely, those who find that statins wreak havoc on their minds or their muscles would be encouraged to discontinue early and reverse the damage.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Navar AM, "Fear-based medical misinformation and disease prevention: From vaccines to statins." JAMA Cardiology, June 26, 2019. DOI: 10.1001/jamacardio.2019.1972
  • Mach F et al, "Adverse effects of statin therapy: perception vs. the evidence - Focus on glucose homeostasis, cognitive, renal and hepatic function, haemorrhagic stroke and cataract." European Heart Journal, July 14, 2018. DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehy182
  • Vrablik M et al, "Understanding the patient perception of statin experience: A qualitative study." Advances in Therapy, Oct. 2019. DOI: 10.1007/s12325-019-01073-7
  • Samaras K et al, "Does statin use cause memory decline in the elderly?" Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine, Aug. 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.tcm.2016.03.009
  • Samaras K et al, "Effects of statins on memory, cognition, and brain volume in the elderly." Journal of the American College of Cardiology, online Nov, 18, 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.09.041
  • Schultz BG et al, "The role of statins in both cognitive impairment and protection against dementia: a tale of two mechanisms." Translational Neurodegeneration, Feb. 27, 2018. DOI: 10.1186/s40035-018-0110-3
  • Tan B et al, "Evidence and mechanisms for statin-induced cognitive decline." Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, April 27, 2019. DOI: 10.1080/17512433.2019.1606711
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About 15 years ago, the PCP I was going to at the time prescribed Zocor, and I noticed a difference for the worse in my memory within days. I didn’t realize it was possible. So I looked it up and found nothing. But I was sure and stopped taking them immediately. I was soon back to normal.

There are some other things, though. My husband has been taking the same statin for about 20 years, and we did not notice any problem with his mind. Also, about 5 years ago, my cholesterol levels were really climbing so a different M.D. prescribed Crestor, and I took it without any problems noted.

My husband’s doctor prescribed statins for him, which caused dreadful muscle pain and memory loss. His doctor, later on, prescribed statins for himself and suffered some serious side effects. He not only took my husband off statins but he will not prescribe them for anyone else.

Age 74. Started on Atorvastatin approx. 3 years ago. Then at mid-Stage 2, IGA Nephritis (Renal Disease). Now have late-Stage 4. Kidney disease is nonlinear. Mine had originally been diagnosed 25 years ago. Was then told I’d be on dialysis within a year. Have been on high dose DHA, RHA amino acids from fish oil. Seems to have forestalled rapid renal decline. Now decline appears to be faster. Recently on PT for quad muscle pain and weakness – some atrophy. Was having other muscle aches. Also noticed less mental sharpness (anecdotal); especially puzzle solutions. Therapist alerted doctor. No flags on liver tests. But, now on a no-statin trial. 4 weeks and feeling better. Not very scientific, but good enough for me. “If you pluck a spider web on one side, it will vibrate on the other”.

My doctor put me on a low-dose generic Crestor 2 yrs ago. I have been reluctantly taking it, as my numbers have been slowly coming down. After reading many comments and concerns of dementia and type 2 diabetes, I am fearfully questioning this therapy. Up until now I have attributed my slight cognitive decline to stress. I will look into red yeast rice again and other health alternatives.

The Sydney Memory and Aging Study only tracked people age 70-90. Many of them will develop some form of mental deficiency eventually whether they take a statin or not. I think if the study included those 50-69, the results would have been very different.

After taking statin drugs for several years, I began having great difficulties with memory and was so worried about my situation that I was depressed. Due to another medical issue, the doctor took me off the drug; 2 weeks later, I had returned to normal. I was put on a different statin drug, and the memory problem came back within a couple of weeks. I will not take a statin drug again.

Starting about 14 years ago, the doctor I had at the time insisted that I start taking statins. First I was on Simvastatin, but had issues with memory and focusing on what I was doing. He changed me to Crestor a couple of years later, and that was even worse. After another 2 years on Crestor, I changed doctors and was taken off ALL statins because I was (and still am) at a healthy weight, I exercise a lot, and my cholesterol was at 210. My bad cholesterol was high, but my good cholesterol was very high, and my triglycerides were good. I have been on no statins since then (for about 10 years), and my cholesterol is the same. But the best news is that my memory at 70 is better than it was 14 years ago when I was on statins. NEVER AGAIN!!!!!

Oh my goodness, it feels like Big Pharma really wants to shut down researchers who affirm statins cause cognitive impairment. I am one of hundreds of thousands who suffered severe cognitive impairment, in the form of short-term memory loss and confusion, while using statins. I even got lost driving home from work one day on the same route I traveled for over 20 years. A neurologist friend of mine told me that statins cause these symptoms. She also noted that dementia levels in this country have increased since the pervasive use of statins. I spoke with my cardiologist, and we decided to stop statins. It took quite awhile before my memory came back. These drugs are a terrible choice for some people.

The Above Study Was funded by Biogen and Nutrica, this one was not: ” We conclude that statin-induced cognitive decline does exist, needs to be better recognized and requires more studies of prevention and treatment.”

That study was Funded by Biogen and Nutria. The following one Was NOT

CONCLUSION: “We conclude that statin-induced cognitive decline does exist, needs to be better recognized and requires more studies of prevention and treatment.”

I’m not convinced. The number of people in the study is very small compared to the number taking statins, Furthermore, 6 years isn’t all that long. What’s really problematic is was the decrease in cognitive ability an inevitable decline that coincidentally occurred , or did the statin cause or aggravate it?

My mom was cognitively alert and fine until she was on Crestor. After a year there was marked decline in her memory, ability to focus, and her speech. Docs of course said it was just due to aging, and refused to take her off the drug. Being of the generation that obeyed doctors like they were gods, she kept taking the drug. She died from dementia.
I wouldn’t take a statin if my cholesterol hit 400. End of story.

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