Lovastatin was the first of the new-generation statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs on the market. It was approved by the FDA for sale in 1987. Even before the drug was approved, however, studies in dogs suggested that lovastatin might trigger cataract formation. A review in the journal Pharmacotherapy in 1987 titled “Lovastatin: A New Cholesterol-Lowering Drug” noted:

 “The most common adverse effects are gastrointestinal, while the most serious are elevated transaminase levels and the potential for lens opacities.”

“Lens opacities” is another way of saying cataracts.

For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, drug companies have been able to downplay the risk of cataracts associated with statins for 25 years. Very few physicians ever mention this as a complication of statin therapy. We suspect that if you asked most cardiologists, internists or family practice physicians about this side effect you would get a deer-in-the-headlights stare or a shrug.

The cataract connection began to get traction when a large British study (BMJ, May 20, 2010) involving over 2 million patients detected a signal. The authors reported that “Each statin was associated with an increased risk of cataract in both men and women… After stopping treatment the risk of cataract returned to normal within a year in men and women.”

In 2012 Canadian researchers noted that patients with diabetes who were taking statins were at nearly 50 percent greater risk of cataracts. The authors recommended that people with diabetes who are taking statin-type drugs should be monitored for cataract development.

In June 2013 a study was published in the journal Drug Safety titled: “Statin Use and Cataract Surgery: A Nationwide Retrospective Cohort Study in Elderly Ethnic Chinese Patients.” The analysis of 50,000 individuals enrolled in the National Health Insurance Database of Taiwan suggested that people taking statins were approximately 20 percent more likely to undergo cataract surgery than those not taking such drugs.

Now a new study has been published in JAMA Ophthalmology (online, Sept. 19, 2013) titled: “Association of Statin Use with Cataracts.” Texas researchers compared 6,972 statin users to 6,972 nonusers.

The authors concluded: “this study found statin use to be associated with an increased risk for cataract.” Specifically, they found a 27% increased risk of cataracts in statin users. They go on to caution their colleagues that “The risk-benefit ratio of statin use, specifically for primary prevention, should be carefully weighed, and further studies are warranted.” That’s more doctor-speak. We interpret that to mean that the evidence that statins will prevent a first heart attack (“primary prevention”) is weak at best, and you all had better think twice about prescribing these drugs for otherwise healthy folks.

These days most people don’t think twice about cataracts. But clouding of the lens is a primary cause of poor vision and blindness in the U.S. The annual cost is nearly $5 billion. And not all cataract surgery goes smoothly. Some people are left with poor vision even when everything goes according to plan.

WHAT’S BEHIND STATINS AND CATARACTS?

Here is something most doctors should know, but seemingly have forgotten. The lens of the eye requires cholesterol to stay healthy and transparent. Without adequate cholesterol, specialized epithelial cells in the eye cannot grow normally. Animal studies have demonstrated that interfering with cholesterol synthesis in the eye increases the likelihood of cataracts. People who have naturally low cholesterol levels because of their genetic makeup are at greater risk of developing cataracts. So many of the puzzle pieces are starting to fit together.

BOTTOM LINE:

The evidence is accumulating that statins are linked to cataracts. For people who have heart disease, have experienced a heart attack or have stents in coronary arteries, the benefits of drugs like atorvastatin (Lipitor), lovastatin (Mevacor), pitavastatin (Livalo), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor) may well be worth the risks. Those who are otherwise healthy should discuss these new findings with a physician. Cataracts are not a trivial side effect.

COMMENTS FROM VISITORS TO THIS WEBSITE:

Here are some comments from readers about their experiences with statins and cataracts:

 

“Age 68 I have been on statins for over 20 yrs. I have had joint & muscle pain. I’ve had cataracts in both eyes in my mid 50’s. No one in my family had this problem. I complained many times & was never told the statins could be the cause of cataracts. I finally decided what ever life I had in front of me I didn’t want to be in a fog & pain! I went off Tricor & simvastatin April 2013.

“In about 2 1/2 weeks I felt like a new person.  Mental fog gone; sleeping at night; the muscle aches & some of the joint pain  gone or less. Susan


“I was taking simvastatin 20 mg for 3 years. In that time I developed a cataract that went from non-existence to needing surgery in 9 months, high liver enzymes, memory loss and elevated blood sugar for which I now must take metformin. None of these side effects were listed at the time.

“I have been off it for 6 months and my liver returned to normal and my memory has improved some.

“I now take flaxseed and fish oil and watch my diet and now my cholesterol is fine. Too many doctors rush to put people on these drugs. My cholesterol was 200 & with diet and supplements I would most likely have lowered it without the statin.”        J.L.M.


“A friend of mine has just had cataract surgery on both eyes. She was on statins for two years or so and recently discontinued. Another horrifying side effect for this poor woman was that she suffered horrendous pains in her hips.  She had all sorts of investigations for the hip pain and cortisone injections, pain killers by the score, you name it. Stopped the statins and lo and behold! the hip pain went away. By the by, no-one ever suggested she take CoQ10 or Ubiquinol as a supplement while on statins. Something has to be done about these drugs that are affecting so many millions of people in the interests of so-called health.” Linden


“During the span of many years, I have been prescribed Zocor, Lipitor, and Mevacor and have experienced cataracts, peripheral neuropathy, mostly in my lips and feet, insomnia, severe muscle aches among other ills.  My physician now wants to prescribe Crestor and I told him that was not going to happen.  I researched non-statin cholesterol drugs and found that Welchol was the only one which, supposedly, didn’t have the statin type side effects – but after taking it for about a month, experienced some of the same side effects as I had while taking statins.  So, I’ve decided to live with my high cholesterol.” Bunny


 “My husband was prescribed lovastatin a little over 6 years ago.  He went for his liver check when he was told to.  Kept to his diet like he was supposed to. He is a diabetic and has been for over 20 years now.  It is controlled by diet and one pill.  He had already been diagnosed with cataracts, just not bad enough to be removed yet.  When he started this med he had to have them removed within the year. He took lovastatin for 5 months. His liver was checked and was fine.

“The problem was not the liver.  The problem was his CPK should have been checked.  By the end of January he had lost the muscles in his legs. Had sepsis and could not even open his eyelids.  His CPK was 14,000.  He has not walked or stood since. He is wheelchair bound and requires a lift and hospital bed. Our life has been turned upside down because of lovastatin.” V. T.


“I took simvastatin for seven years and got so stiff that I could barely get out of a chair.  My right leg ached and was weak.  I could barely walk.  I changed doctors and was immediately told I could discontinue the drug.  It’s been about six months now and gradually my leg has improved and the “plantar fasciitis” that I thought I had is gone.  I can now go up stairs with two legs working rather than the hobbling I was doing.  Meanwhile I have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and the beginning of cataracts.

 “I’m seventy-two so some of this may be normal but I’m convinced the statin is a culprit.  I went on a different type of cholesterol medicine and seem to have developed an allergy to it.  I’m now trying a very strict diet and hoping it will work as my cholesterol was less than 220 when all this started!”   D.D.M.

 

Share your own statin story below. We want to hear pros and cons, positives and negatives. Let us know your experience.

 

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  1. J J
    Reply

    I am appalled that physicians want a cholesterol of 70. Every hormone in the body is made from cholesterol. We need cholesterol to live! When I was in nursing school in the 70’s normal cholesterol was 250. In the 80’s statins were invented and the the drug companies petitioned the FDA to lower the ‘normal’ to 220. About 10 years ago they petitioned again to make ‘normal’ 200. All this misery just to make a drug company More Money! Studies have shown recovery from a stroke is not likely when cholesterol goes significantly below 200. Statins are most effective in people who have already had a heart attack.

  2. CF
    Reply

    I ran this warning by my ophthalmologist yesterday, and she said DON’T stop taking my statin, because the procedure for cataracts is simple, and the statin benefits for stroke prevention are far too important, even in preventing blood clots within the eye.

  3. jkc
    Reply

    If people ate right and exercised, they wouldn’t need these medications. Doctors put them on them because their cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, blood sugars are off. My husband and I live a healthy lifestyle and our numbers are all excellent. We’re in our 60’s. Take charge of yourself and doctors won’t have an excuse to give you this drug.

  4. LAS
    Reply

    My cardiologist put me on 80mg of Simvastatin with sever effects of muscle pain. Could not even lift my arms. I have since changed cardiologists. My internal medicine doctor put my on pravastatin (20 mg) and I did quite well. Then my Part D Medicare prescription plan charged more for pravastatin so I went on a low dose of simvastatin and back came the severe muscle problems. My internist took me off all statins. What a difference. I can exercise and do daily chores with no muscle pain.

  5. BML
    Reply

    I was taking simvastatin for 2 years. Gradually my brain seemed so foggy I couldn’t function well. I mentioned memory problems to my Doctor but he didn’t seem to think it was a problem. I finally stopped the pills and within 10 days my mind was remarkably clearer. Within 2 weeks the aching I had attributing to “age” and arthritis had improved significantly. Why don’t they warn us about these side effects?

  6. jn
    Reply

    When statins were first introduced into medicine it was recommended in the Mevacor package insert to have annual checkup for cataracts so this is NOT NEW.

  7. JRB
    Reply

    I too have severe muscle aches, hip and leg pain and take Lipitor. Also lower back pain.
    Is red rice yeast a suitable sub for Lipitor? I recall reading that RED rice yeast has its
    own set of problems. My cholesterol is borderline high.

  8. Micki S.
    Reply

    I was on simvastatin for 3 years, following a stent. last November, I developed hip and low back pain, which got progressively worse till MAY, when my cardiologist realized it was the culprit. He no longer prescribes it, but wants me to take Zetia, 5mg daily. I fear all these statin drugs.. I have met numerous people who have had similar reactions.
    Not till I developed severe weakness in my thighs and could not squat and stand without pulling up or being assisted did it come to light. 2 weeks after stopping simvastatin, my pain was GONE!
    During the the 6 months after my first low back/hip pain, I tried 8 weeks of orthopedic massage 2X week, ort, gentle yoga, a trip to orthopedist and 8 weeks of physical therapy!
    During this time, I saw my primary care physician and she did not catch it, neither did the cardiologist during my 3 month check ups. My cholesterol is 107. the cardiologist wants it to be 70 and thinks I need a drug to achieve that.
    I am 74, weig.h 130lbs and exercise daily

  9. Sandy C
    Reply

    I take Red Yeast Rice 2-3 times a week to decrease my cholesterol levels. I used to take it every day, but have cut back because of all the negative information about statins. My eye doctor has said that I have the beginnings of cataracts. Should I stop the Red Yeast Rice or does this natural statin have less effect on the eyes??

  10. homer
    Reply

    In the early 1990’s my mother who was living alone in Florida after my father passed away a few years earlier had another life changing experience.
    Her long time physician decided to retire and a new doctor took over his practice.
    This new doctor decided that my mother should have a full physical exam (not a bad thing to do) BUT the DR decided that my mother at 83 years of age should be started on Mevacor because her cholesterol was higher than he wanted it to be. Why any Physician in his right mind would decide to prescribe a statin to someone 83 years old and doing well in life is beyond belief and certainly borders on malpractice in my opinion.
    This decision by this Doctor appears to have caused a rapid decline in my mother’s health and within a number of months she wound up falling a number of times and needed to have surgery for cataracts in both eyes because she couldn’t see well enough to avoid tripping. She also had joint and muscle pain and loss of muscle tone so badly that she couldn’t get off the toilet or out of the living room chair and had to use the medical alert button that we had obtained for her a number of times. Walking for her became shuffling her feet and not lifting them which increased her potential for tripping.
    She continued taking the Mevacor until she was completely unable to move on her own power and wound up spending the last 3 years of her life bedridden in a nursing home. The total time between starting the statin treatment and winding up in the nursing home- 3 years, and then she spent her final 3 years bedridden in the nursing home.
    Back then there was not much drug information available to the public but we did find a book in one of the book stores we used to shop at that did have info on statins and even then it mentioned the correlation between statins and cataracts and muscle pain, weakness and atrophy.
    Somewhere along the way the statin makers were able to get the Government (FDA?) to change that statement and say that there was no proof of cataracts being caused by statins. But now it has come back into having merit. It makes you wonder if there was some back door dealing to get the cataract correlation removed.

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