Q. I just read a news article that says “Statins May Not Harm Memory, Thinking After all.” Isn’t this worth reporting on The People’s Pharmacy website?

A. The new study you refer to was published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Oct. 1, 2013). It followed label changes to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs issued by the FDA on February 28, 2012.

In this safety announcement the FDA referred to cognitive side effects such as confusion, forgetfulness, amnesia and “ill-defined memory loss or impairment” associated with statins such as Lipitor (atorvastatin), Lescol (fluvastatin), Mevacor (lovastatin), Altoprev (lovastatin extended-release), Livalo (pitavastatin), Pravachol (pravastatin), Crestor (rosuvastatin), and Zocor (simvastatin).

The agency noted that symptom onset could occur within one day after starting statins or take years to manifest.

The new study analyzed data from eight prior trials involving 23,443 subjects. The investigators found that in three studies there was “no association between statin use and incident dementia, and 5 found a favorable effect.” They noted that 50 people would need to be treated for 6.2 years for one person to get a favorable reduction in dementia. The authors reassured their colleagues that:

“In patients without baseline cognitive dysfunction, the results of the available studies are most compatible with no significant short-term cognitive detriments related to statin therapy, whereas long-term data suggest a beneficial role in the prevention of dementia.”

This might be more reassuring had these studies set out to measure cognitive function over a long period of time. Clinical trials, especially those designed to seek FDA approval, often do a poor job of collecting adverse drug effect data. And cognitive function can be tricky to measure.

We first got an inkling that statins might affect the brain function in the spring of 2000. Here is the original letter we received:

“Last fall my doctor prescribed Lipitor, and after several months I found I was having trouble remembering names and coming up with the right word. At dinner once I said “please pass the elephant” though I wanted the bread. I told my husband I thought I’d had a stroke.

“In January a friend came to visit. She was worried about her memory and couldn’t think of her daughter’s name on the telephone. She too was on Lipitor.

“I asked my doctor to prescribe a different cholesterol medicine. Within a couple of weeks I was more mentally alert. But my friend (still on Lipitor) was in worse shape and afraid she would lose her job. Her doctor said forgetfulness could not be due to the drug. She finally stopped taking Lipitor anyway and now is much sharper.

“I am concerned that some people taking Lipitor might think such a reaction was just due to getting older. Is this side effect well known?”


We responded cautiously because there was very little in the medical literature about statins and memory problems:

“This side effect is not reported in the official prescribing information for Lipitor (atorvastatin). Without a study it is impossible to determine whether this powerful cholesterol-lowering drug is causing confusion and memory loss.

“Cholesterol is often viewed as a dangerous compound, but it is an essential building block for many crucial chemicals and is also important in nerve function. Studies suggest that people with very low cholesterol may be more vulnerable to depression, so it’s not inconceivable that lowering cholesterol significantly might affect mental function for some people.”

After this report was published in our syndicated newspaper column we were inundated with similar messages. About a year later we received this compelling story from Duane Graveline, MD, MPH:

“I am a retired family doctor and former astronaut (www.spacedoc.net). Two years ago at my annual astronaut physical at Johnson Space Center (JSC) I was started on Lipitor. Six weeks later I experienced my first episode of total global amnesia lasting six hours. They couldn’t find anything wrong with me so I suspected Lipitor and discontinued it.

“Other doctors and pharmacists did not seem to be aware of similar problems. Believing it must have been a simple coincidence, I decided a year later to restart Lipitor. Six weeks later I was brought to the ER with a twelve-hour episode of total global amnesia. I am more convinced than ever of a Lipitor relationship.

“Do you have any information on other people who may have had such an experience? I have my astronaut physical again in a few weeks and would like to tell the doctors about this if you have any data. This drug is in common use at JSC and for all I know other astronauts may be on it as part of their enthusiasm for preventive medicine.”

Again our response was cautious:

“Total global amnesia seems to be rare, but one person told us that Lipitor resulted in ‘big ugly holes burned through my memory.’

“According to Beatrice Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., Principal Investigator of the Statin Study at the University of California, San Diego, ‘We have received dozens of reports from people citing significant memory problems with Lipitor that seem to resolve with discontinuation. Some are from older people who have gone from very bright and verbal to not recalling the names of their children or grandchildren, in short order; and others are from younger people who have rather abruptly developed memory problems. Several have gone so far as to get work-ups for early Alzheimer’s in their 40s or early 50s, only to find that the problems resolved when they discontinued statin drugs.'”

That was pubblished in March of 2001. Since then we have received hundreds of reports of confusion, forgetfulness, memory problems and cognitive dysfunction associated with statins. Here are just a few more recent messages:

“I don’t know for sure what’s causing the holes in my memory, but I’ve been taking atorvastatin for almost two years. I’m only 59 and the degree of my inability to call up words (especially names, but even just words lately) is frightening. It doesn’t seem like I’ve taken statins long enough to account for my ‘Swiss cheese’ memory.” Gloria


I am 44 years of age and was on 20mg simvastatin for the last 5 years.  I was very active, exercised, and full of energy before taking simvastatin. 

“Gradually, I lost strength everywhere in my body, especially in my left leg.  I could hardly raise it to get out of a car or chair.  I also began to have memory problems, muscle cramps, muscle twitching, and fatigue. 

“I went to the emergency room because I was so weak and could hardly walk anymore. I had an MRI, an EMG, and all the blood work.  They could not find anything wrong with me, but told me to stay off the simvastatin for 4 to 6 weeks to see if anything changes. 

“I have noticed huge changes since I quit taking simvastatin. It has only been 2 weeks since I quit taking it, and already the fatigue is gone; I can walk again, my memory and concentration are like they used to be, my strength has returned, and my left leg is feeling better! I feel like my old self again!” N.J.


“I was on 20 mg of Lipitor for some time and 3 years ago had a day of transient global amnesia (TGA).  I knew people, but had no idea of time, day or year.  My short-term memory was less than a minute  (eg. I knew I had eaten a doughnut because I could still taste it).

“I had a CT Scan, echocardiogram and was hospitalized for 24 hours and was told that my diagnosis was TGA and that it wouldn’t happen again.  Of course the doctors denied that it could be Lipitor.”


“Years ago, I took all of the statins – Lipitor, Lescol, Pravachol and Zocor. I began to feel stupid. I could not think; I could not figure out easy problems. Many times I just stared at what I was supposed to do. It did not matter the statin – they all did the same thing to me.

“Once I was off the statins, I was ok. But when I started a new statin prescription, the numbing of the brain happened again. This stupidity issue was a big problem for me. It is much more than just memory loss as it is often referred to. Stupidity is the best word for what happened to me. I just could not think.” Mike


We know that these anecdotes are not the same as data from controlled clinical trials. What we really need are long-term, large trials that specifically monitor mental function, cognitive ability and memory. Because this effect may triggered in susceptible individuals, we may need to try and identify those people who are susceptible and those who are resistant. Just as some people are more vulnerable to the muscle pain and weakness of statins than others, so too nerve pain or neurological complications may be more common in particular groups. Without sophisticated assessment, we may miss serious side effects that might otherwise slip through the cracks of traditional clinical trials. 

If you would like to learn more about the Dark Side of Statins, we suggest taking an hour to listen to our radio show with Dr. Graveline and Dr. Golomb. Here is a link should you wish to purchase a CD of the interview.

Share your own story below. Have you been able to take statins without any cognitive problems? We would love to hear your experience. Have you experienced any difficulty with memory or cognitive function? Let us know what happened.

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  1. Ethelwynne W.
    Reply

    I took Pravistatin for six years, following a mild heart attack in 2002. Sometime during the fifth year I realized I was struggling to find the words I needed to express myself. I noticed my friends were helping me, suggesting words when I paused in mid sentence, struggling to find the words I needed. I sometimes could not even dredge up simple words like “and” “there”, etc.
    Anyhow, since I’m a research nut, I hit the internet and discovered research by two people: a woman doctor in La Jolla, California, and a former pilot, astronaut, who had written a book. Both blamed statins for memory loss. I quit taking pravastatin and gradually regained the ability to complete a sentence without having numerous pauses while I tried to dredge up the right word, or synonym.
    Today, I still have some problems, but I’m experienced enough with the problem that I’m pretty good at coming up with sentences that make sense. It has been five years since my last pravastatin pill.
    A year after quitting pravistatin a new cardiologist prescribed simvastatin. I experienced severe muscle pain, shortness of breath.three months of pain. The muscle pains stopped immediately when I stopped taking simvastatin. Since that time I have had two other cardiologists, Both have insisted I take statins. I have said, no way. By the way, I am now 87 years old, living independently, happily. verbally.

  2. crandreww
    Reply

    @ Sue: I would not recommend Dr John Flemming (Chief of Neurology) Nice guy, but NOT open minded at all he scoffed at the notion that my 28 day hospital stay, holes in my brain, mitochondrial DNA mutations, Neuropathy was caused by a Statin (in spite of Dr Golomb calling him and discussing my case with him, he continued to say my problems were caused by a virus..I did quit going to him, and would not recommend him to anyone who does not have a Plain and simple diagnosis, without any complications. I saw every Neurologist, Resident and Student during my hospitalization, and my wife says the one that impressed her the most was Dr.Berend P.Lotz at UW Health Hospitals and Clinics. http://www.uwhealth.org/locations/clinic_detail.jsp?sublocationId=410
    It is well documented that effects of ALL HMGCoA reductase inhibitors (Statins) can cause Neuropathy, Diabetes, Cognitive Problems, and I am Highly suspicious of Sleep Apnea, Since I was diagnosed with it at 32, only 2 years after starting lipitor, Your sisters heavy sugar diet may well be the cause of her elevated triglycerides, I would consider decreasing the amount of sugar BUT NOT BY SUGAR SUBSTITUTES, as they have a host of their own ill effects.

  3. crandreww
    Reply

    Mary…dont fall for the advertisements on TV, Radio and newspapers!! Scare tactics to shore up $$ for the company…Cholesterol is ABSOLUTELY essential and present and needed in every cell in your body. The BEST ANY STATIN Drug Study has ever shown is an absolute risk reduction (actual decrease of coronary events) of LESS THAN 0.5%, SO NOT WORTH THE RISKS OF LIFE CHANGING SIDE EFFECTS! Enjoy your cholesterol levels, do not do anything to artificially lower them. Dont believe me? Google “Has science shown people with high cholesterol have fewer heart attacks”, and read the wealth of info…DO NOT FALL FOR THE $$$ making scam, which does nothing except ensure you remain a paying patient for a long time.

  4. Sue H.
    Reply

    I have been providing care for my younger sister, age 54 for the past 2 years. She had a brain tumor (oligodendroglioma, mid-brain/frontal lobe) in 1986 which has been in remission since radiation treatment that year. She has been on simvastatin 10 mg for more than 10 years, not sure when it was prescribed. Many of the statin S/E described are things that my family and I feel have either gotten worse or possibly started after going on the statin. She had cognitive difficulties, primarily short-term memory issues since the brain tumor and radiation but this is one area that we feel has gotten worse.
    Since starting the statin, she has been diagnosed with Type 2 DM, peripheral neuropathy, sleep apnea, balance problems, muscle weakness, chronic diarrhea, and OAB. Her affect is unpredictable and she is sometimes confused (medication related?) She takes metformin 1500/day and despite a pretty sugar-laden diet, her Hgb A1C has been

  5. mary
    Reply

    Three big cheers and thank you to NOAH yet again for his common sense perspective.
    And to DON– thank you as well.
    However it does read that your wife is practicing preventative measures, hoping to alter ‘future’ health. Her dedication is commendable although many raising a family may not be able to afford as much time as she commits.
    Best to all!

  6. Cathy
    Reply

    My hat is off to everyone who takes note of how these drugs affect them and shares the information with their doctors. It can be hard to do. There doesn’t seem to be a system in place for feedback by patients to the FDA whether directly or through the doctor. But there is a researcher who invites people to share drug experiences and look up what other have actually experienced in terms of side effects and interactions. The site is RxISK.org.
    As so many of the above comments reflect, we must never forget to believe what is right before our eyes. Placebo controlled double blind studies sound pretty darn good but you and I cannot know what the data actually reflects. But our own bodies and friends and loved ones tell the tale. I have come to believe in the body’s wisdom, and it is a sign of our troubled times that it can take someone 55 years to learn this.
    When I read that the research looked at 8 studies and reported on only 3, I wondered. Then I remembered what I read in Dr. David Healy’s book Pharmageddon about the secrecy of raw data and the vested interests involved in these kinds of studies. Billions of dollars are at stake. Look up the statistics on how much money these drugs bring in for not just the makers but also the doctors, many of whom are part of incentive programs where they get paid big bonuses or better reimbursements just to lower people’s “numbers.” A simple internet search will show you the ever growing list of researchers, writers and practitioners who are calling “foul” on today’s tendency to focus on cholesterol lowering for everyone.
    You can bet the drug marketers are seeing the handwriting on the wall, too, and they are grasping at straws. And misleading headlines really help them and I’ll bet you they know just how to go about getting them. Too bad many doctors are too busy filling out paperwork to pay attention to what is going on right in front of them, and for many reasons feel hard pressed to question the almighty drug marketers and their phony research headlines!

  7. Don
    Reply

    Mary: Noah is absolutely correct. The worry over something that may happen down the road is not worth it. My wife has a very high total cholesterol number. That’s all. Everything else is great; BP, TG, “fluffy” type cholesterol, good ratios, glucose and her CV “risk” was 3% calculated on the NIH website. She eats well, at the gym every weekday and swims about two miles over the course of a week. Her parents made it to their late 80’s, grandparents to their 90’s! Then her doctor proceeded to nearly cripple her with statins. And all that did was lower her “risk” to 2%. Many people would pay money to have a 3% risk, but her doctor had her very concerned she was seriously sick. My take on it is she is seriously healthy!
    Eat well, live well, stay busy and most important, review all of the indicators I mentioned above with your doctor.

  8. RLB
    Reply

    RLB
    Mary;
    Familial cholesterol is not a death sentence!. My mother had cholesterol >350 and died of an infection, not cardiovascular associated, at 86. My wife, who is 87, has cholesterol > 280 and has no problems with plaque in her arteries.
    Do some internet research regarding familial cholesterol. If you are over 65, all genuine research shows that seniors with total cholesterol > 250 live longer than those with lowered cholesterol. Simply, statins make you sick. Cholesterol doesn’t. Artery clogging is caused by cholesterol migrating to protect from an inflammation not from the cholesterol itself. Just doing its job.
    If you have normal A1C, you should not have a problem with cholesterol. Note that I am not a doctor and that my message to you is advice only. It just infuriates me that people are being given prescriptions that are known to make them sick.
    Also, read the testimonials on this site

  9. crandreww
    Reply

    EVERYONE….Each and every one of us has the RIGHT, to put or to not put a drug into our bodies. If your doctor wants you to take a statin, and you do not want to, then my all means, DONT.. DO NOT be bullied into taking a drug which only has very little proven benefit (less that 3%)…your doc, will likely continue his/her pitch, that I dont want to see you die of a heart attack, which scares many into taking these drugs. Be strong, and know that every cell in our body has cholesterol, we need it so badly, that God himself made it so that we can manufacture it. If you want a better chance of warding off heart disease/stroke, eat lots of antioxidant rich foods, broccoli, spinach, most veggies, nuts, Raisins, Cherries and most types of Berries…http://www.oracvalues.com/

  10. Noah V.
    Reply

    Given what seems to be a case of the cure having immediate negative side effects that can readily become chronic while the “illness” is what may be a normal if somewhat extreme condition. And that condition can be treated with diet and exercise and non-pharmaceutical dietary supplementation… to me the answer of what to do is obvious:
    Don’t take statins as they can destroy you quickly as compared to a condition that MAY impair your health sometime down the road and which may be perfectly normal for you.
    Watch your diet, exercise, get out and live your life like you weren’t scared of what may happen to you. After all… what you are afraid of happening to you happens to everybody, sooner or later.
    Eat healthy, act healthy, be healthy.
    Now go enjoy yourself.

  11. mary
    Reply

    This is truly scary stuff here. So what is one to do if severely elevated cholesterol is genetic then? I do not see any solution and that is terribly depressing.

  12. crandreww
    Reply

    I can tell you one thing with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY, I was a healthy 34 year old critical care RN, for 12 years, and had been prescribed lipitor (all statins work the EXACT same way) I developed holes in my brain, acute confusion, inability to walk nor speak coherently, failed several mental exams, hospitalized for 28 days, mitochondrial DNA mutations, profound short term memory loss that plague me yet today..11 years later. I know that cholesterol is an absolutely ESSENTIAL element in our body, it is present in EVERY cell in the human body, most abundant in the brain..When I was discharged 11/7/2002, I enrolled in the UCSD statin effects study, when I was informed that “lipitor was the likely causal contributor to the holes in my brain, as well as the Mitochondrial DNA mutations,seen under electron microscopy. Statins “work” by blocking your bodys ability to manufacture cholesterol, which is at the very beginning of the Mevolonate pathway, in which nearly 200 Cruicial elements are manufactured. Who do we think we are that we can just fix Gods mistake? “Doctors, do no harm”…part of the hippocratic oath…most people may not have what I have had, but if this was in the brochure, I sure as hell would have never touched the stuff. If your doctor wants to “treat your cholesterol” ask him isnt cholesterol necessary in the human body? And what about the plethora of other elements that are blocked, CoQ10, Dolichols, Vit D, Steroid hormones, Testosterone….etc, etc, etc…

  13. RLB
    Reply

    @DeeDee;
    Seems an odd preventive measure since a recent correlation between type two diabetes and statins has been discovered.

  14. Don
    Reply

    Studies of studies always make me leery of any reported result. Different target populations,controls, periods, etc. Like many things these days, a proponent of something will say, “There are 500 studies supporting or confirming this research/product effectiveness/projection/etc.” The proponent never mentions there are 500 other studies that do not support it, or are neutral.
    I did a up-close “study” on my wife after she quit statins. Three serious and two annoying side effects disappeared after she stopped them. Most importantly, she no longer got lost while driving, and other signs of “fuzziness” (NOT dementia) disappeared.
    It is appalling to hear friends and relatives relate their problems related to statins.

  15. Ellen C.
    Reply

    My husband was given statins in the ’90’s. He developed muscle weakness and pain, and severe depression.
    By 2002, his memory was so bad that I thought I was going to have to label everything in the house, and I made him go for testing. The test results were fine, but his memory remained sketchy at best.
    He tried to get off the statins with niacin but the niacin caused the same dreadful muscle pain that he had experienced with the statin drugs.
    We then stopped the drugs and started using walnuts, avocadoes, Cholest-Off and plant sterols. The cholesterol was kept in a good range and his memory improved. However, he developed peripheral neuropathy, a painful and debilitating condition that his doctors say is probably a result of taking statins for a number of years. And his primary care doctor who would not listen to problems with statins started taking a statin drug himself and had to quit becuse of the muscle weakness and pain. He is now a believer.
    These drugs should not be given to anyone. My husband’s life has been irreparably impacted by the use of those drugs. And because he is not a diabetic, he cannot receive help from Medicare for the pain in his feet.

  16. Lyn
    Reply

    I was on lipitor for about 7 years and developed trigger fingers. The hand doctor said usually it is a condition of diabetes. My endocrinologist says I am definitely not diabetic.
    Anyway I took a drug holiday from lipitor and my problems went away. But I kept trying statins because I can think more clearly with them. The only time I had a memory problem was when I took lipitor with other drugs. When I stopped the other drugs I was clear again.
    By accident I found if I take lipitor with Vit. A, D and zinc I am able to tolerate the statin. I don’t know how long this will work but I love it because it really helps my mind.

  17. DS
    Reply

    Controlled clinical trials……………..I think the operative word is “controlled.” Controlled for what the sponsoring company wants to “prove.” I find personal anecdotes more believable. Lying with statistics an advanced art.

  18. SalW
    Reply

    The University of Arizona is on the right track in trying to determine the effect of statins on susceptible people:
    A University of Arizona research team reveals (April 8, 2013) a possible reason for cholesterol-drug side effects and “has made a novel discovery in brain cells being treated with statin drugs: unusual swellings within neurons, which the team has termed the ‘beads-on-a-string’ effect. The team is not entirely sure why the beads form but believes that further investigation of the beads will help inform why some people experience cognitive declines while taking statins.
    ‘What we think we’ve found is a laboratory demonstration of a problem in the neuron that is a more severe version for what is happening in some peoples’ brains when they take statins,’ said Restifo, a UA professor of neuroscience, neurology and cellular and molecular medicine, and principal investigator on the project.”
    They further state that “statin users often are told by physicians that cognitive disturbances experienced while taking statins were likely due to aging or other effects. However, the UA team’s research offers additional evidence that the cause for such declines in cognition is likely due to a negative response to statins.”
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY RESPONSE:
    Thanks for the heads up about this research Sal.
    Here is a link for anyone who would like to learn more about this effect:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130510150143.htm
    Here is an abstract of the journal article:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=statins+Restifo

  19. DeeDee
    Reply

    I reported to my doctor after a few weeks on simvastatin that I would not take it as it produced severe depression and suicidal thoughts. I distinctly remember thinking why do I feel this way all of a sudden and the only change was taking the statin. So now my record says that I am “allergic” to statins — note as my only “allergy” of record. I was on the statin as a preventive since I was recently diagnosed with diabetes. I think these drugs are dangerous and are too quickly prescribed.

  20. MJ
    Reply

    I was prescribed Prevastatin by my doctor some time ago and experienced serious memory problems, and muscle weakness. Lucky for me I subscribed to your newsletter and saw the Statin article.
    I tried to share it with my doctor, who did not seem convinced there was a serious problem. However, I quit taking the statin. I am trying Endur-Acin (nicotinic acid) 500 mg and hoping this is a safer alternative to the statins.
    If you have information on how well the nicotinic acid works to reduce cholesterol and optimum dosage to use, or other ways to reduce it, I would certainly be interested. Margaret

  21. MG
    Reply

    I may have commented before, but it’s worth repeating. My husband has been on statins for about 13 years. When he was on Crestor, the side-effect of statin-related dementia was almost immediate. Within 2 weeks he, at about age 37, was behaving like an Alzheimer’s patient.
    I tried finding info in Crestor literature about this as I suspected it to be the culprit. When I could not find any online, I phoned. The woman I spoke with identified herself as a nurse and told me it was indeed there, but not in the patient information but physician information. She seemed nervous telling me any of this and tried to direct me to its location without giving me all the details. Basically, it was buried and not as specific as it should have been, but being a writer and former journalist, I understood the “writer speak” very well.
    He immediately stopped taking it, and within a few days he was back to himself. We reported our experience to the FDA, providing them with our private information so they could follow-up with us. They never did.
    He’s still on a statin at age 40 (I believe it’s his 4th) as his problem is genetic rather than diet related. But if we can ever get him off of this safely, we will.

  22. Noah V.
    Reply

    I have noted in the past very few years that many of the old guidelines for preventive care as well as warnings on medications have seemingly gone by the wayside. Dangers aren’t as dangerous and old preventive/prophylactic tests (PSA, x-rays for breast cancer, et al) aren’t as “predictive” as we had previously been told. Old guidelines seem to be getting changed as a result of “broad based research” and it scares the heck out of me because I just don’t trust the economic politics driving this new research.
    We (at least I) have also seen more scandal about the FDA and its practices and procedures in recent years. Medications long considered as “safe” and effective turn out to be less so and those thought either ineffective or dangerous now are said to be efficacious (including holistic-type home remedies).
    I do not find “the latest thing” comforting.

  23. Penny H.
    Reply

    My new internist put me on pravastatin for relatively high cholesterol. I was leery because of my age (74) because I had read that statins weren’t good for us geezers.
    After taking it for about three months my muscles got extremely sore. I asked my neurologist and he said to quit for a while and see if that helped.
    I’ve been off the pravastatin for about 6 weeks but still have a lot of muscle soreness. I asked the neurologist about it again and he said it could take up to three months for the soreness disappear.

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