an older man getting his eyes examined

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.

Why Haven’t You Heard of the Cataract Connection?

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.

Another study was 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.

Newer Studies Continue to Show an Association Between Statins and Cataracts:

More recently, a large study designed to find out if people at intermediate risk of heart problems would benefit from statins reported a benefit from rosuvastatin (Crestor) (New England Journal of Medicine, online Apr. 2, 2016). The scientists found that only 3.7 percent of those randomly assigned to take Crestor developed cardiovascular complications compared to 4.8 percent of those on placebo. But people taking Crestor were also more likely to develop cataracts: 3.8 percent vs. 3.1 percent.

A different study found that cataract surgery was more likely among people taking statins and hypothesized that “increasing statin use could be contributing to rising rates of cataract surgery” (Ophthalmic Epidemiology, Feb., 2016).

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 PeoplesPharmacy.com:

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.

Revised 5/12/16

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  1. gloria
    Michigan
    Reply

    Within the past six months, I have developed a cataract in right eye. Knew I had the beginnings of one in the left, but not bad enough for surgery.

    It has cost me over $800.00 for new glasses to get to 20/20 as they are not bad enough for surgery. After reading about Lipitor, I agree it does affect the body

    Eyes being so important, after the process of elimination, if I take it, it will be once a week. I have no brain fog or muscle pains as previous after a few days off.

  2. Eleanor
    Reply

    Please keep informing the public (and maybe the medical profession) about the side effects of statins. It is especially important as they are recommending statin use prophylactically.
    Ellie Kinnaird

  3. Joanie
    Gresham, Oregon
    Reply

    I would like to add another side effect regarding eye problems after using statins: floaters. My experience with over 5 different statins also included the muscle pain, brain fog, etc. Last August I grudgingly agreed to try Lipitor again. My family has a history of high cholesterol (my mother is now 96) and my doctor begged me to try it again. Two weeks after the start, once again the muscle pain, brain fog started. But added to that was a giant eye floater the size of a Kraken! I immediately got in touch with my eye doctor and he said that it was just a normal part of getting older – I’m now 66. So I called my other doctor and said I was going off the Lipitor and never mention it to me again in my lifetime. Twenty years of trying these has not improved anything at all and left me with side effects that are not acceptable to anyone.

  4. NANCY
    Arlington Heights, IL
    Reply

    I liked the comment “when I mentioned to my M.D. that there could be a link with cataracts and statins, the doctor had a ‘deer in the headlight look and just shrugged.” What is it with doctors that they just push all kinds of pills at us for every ailment? I have never had one that mentioned the side effects and if I have a problem they just tell me that its better than having a stroke.
    I think the commercials for medications on TV are a good thing. Most of the time there is mention that the side effects seem to be worse than the drug. I have stayed away from statins but I do take nasty blood pressure medication. I try to eat right and exercise but its not enough. I wish there was some better options than the drugs.

  5. Brad Turner
    Syracuse, New York
    Reply

    Read to be original paper this author quotes from the British medical Journal. The data shows that Statins permanently protect against cancer and massively decrease the risk of having a heart attack…but may be associated with a correctable eye issue. Cancer and heart attack with the risk of death, or a low risk 15 minute eye procedure… That’s the bottom-line.

  6. Scott
    Baltimore
    Reply

    This is called phase IV of a clinical study which is done for every single medication the FDA clears…nothing was hidden. Too bad the author (who practices ‘selective journalism’ and who is not qualified in pharmacy or medicine) didn’t read the original study he quotes in 2 million patients. Cataracts are associated with (not “caused by”) Statin use in an aging population (in which cataract risk is part of anyway)…yet the use of Statins is also associated with a PROTECTIVE effect against cancer of the esophagus and colon and you ONLY need to treat 37 patients with a Statin to prevent one HEART ATTACK!! (those versed in statistics and clinical trials will tell you this is impressive).

    I think I’ll keep taking my Statin to protect against heart attack and cancer which are killers, and take the chance of developing cataract which may or may not be accelerated by Statin use based on the evidence, knowing that the procedure to fix a cataract is one of the lowest risk procedures, taking 15 minutes in qualified hands to correct.

    I don’t hold stock and any drug company, I have no hidden motives, but I am trained in pharmacology, medicine, and critical analysis of clinical trial data. This means I am blessed with the ability to critically analyze individual data and not rely on a biased story written by a journalist.

  7. Cindy M. Black
    Seattle, WA
    Reply

    I don’t know if there’s any connection between statins and beta blockers, but I had no eye problems whatsoever when dx’ed with atrial fibrillation (now resolved thru surgery). I was Rx’ed a beta blocker and warfarin. Within SIX MONTHS I had cataracts in both eyes. I’m sure it had to do with the meds, because as soon as I started them my eyes were bone-dry and scratchy every morning, and when I stopped those meds, the symptoms stopped immediately. Of course I had to have cataract surgeries, not pleasant at all. I’m still irritated about that.

  8. Gina
    Virginia
    Reply

    Four years ago the beginnings of a cataract was discovered on the edge of my right eye’s lens. I was then 53 and had used steroid allergy sprays for ten years. I stopped using the steroid sprays and my next eye exam two years later showed no increase in the cataract. Roughly two more years have passed and for the last sixteen months I have used a low dose of Livalo for high cholesterol. Weeks ago my last eye exam show the cataract now fully surrounded the edge of this lens and that a cataract had started to form on the other eye’s lens. Unfortunately I do think that my statin use is increasing the development of the cataracts. Thank you for this article.

  9. ariel
    USA
    Reply

    i do not know if this is relevant, but i read that cortosterids can cause catracts. My eye dr is doing a laser iridomidy on me next week. The drops to use for 2 weeks have sterioids. I mentioned this and he said it will not hurt my catracts UNLESS it is used for a longer time. However, there is another eye drop with Motrin which i think i will use. I do not want anything to make my catracts worse. Also many nasal sprays contain steroids which if used a lot can cause or make catracts worse . At least that is what i understand.

  10. V
    west coast
    Reply

    Yes, I am also curious about Red Yeast Rice, does this have similar side effects? What’s a safe dosage?

  11. SGH
    Reply

    Here we go again with the cure having the potential of being worse than the condition. I’ve been taking a statin for several years. Two years ago, my opthamologist told me I had a cataract in one eye. This year, I have cataracts in both eyes. They’re both small – for now. I suspect there’s cataract surgery in my future.

  12. Barbara
    spokane, WA
    Reply

    had a small thalamic stroke two months ago. Immediately put on statin (Pravachol) which began to interfere with physical therapy. Switched to Lipitor 10 mg. After a week the brain fog was bad, as was the muscle aching. Pushed myself through the pt because it does help. My sister informed me her own doc diagnosed she could not properly metabolize Lipitor, thus her side effects. Screwed up her liver.

    I told my doc( actually a PA) I was not taking it any more and he spouts off the jargon about reducing the risk of second stroke being worth the aches and pains. Started CoCQ 10. Also my blood sugar became hard to manage, after IDDM diagnosed thirty years ago . Anyhow I stopped Lipitor, decided at age 74 I prefer a better quality of life than it allows. Blood sugar back in control. Thigh muscles still weak. Am also on Plavix, which I wonder about. It seems the docs are only looking at an organ system, not considering the whole person, in their prescribing practices. They prescribe to the lab numbers.

  13. Sal
    IN
    Reply

    I have a marginally high Cholesterol for many years and during while in my 60’s and 70’s was prescribed several statins by the VA over the years from Simvastatons to the lastly Lipitor. I always experienced the same problems that being lazy or weak legs, loss of leg muscles and nite leg cramps.
    My Doctors all denied that my problems could be the result of the statins and I needed to continue them because of my Cholesterol.
    I eventually just quit taking the statin pills, slowly over 3-4 weeks my legs returned to normal feeling, and fewer cramps. I stay active, walking and exercise . I have cataracts which could be a result of the statins.

  14. Rajinder
    reston
    Reply

    My partner shows me these comment and I use statin for 10 years ,last year I stopped and used to get lot shoulder neck pain .Recently eating more veggie and exercise kept my sugar low my cholesterol was never too high .I am 67 and my doctor agree incase my cholesterol do not go high above 200 I may stop taking statin .I think our food should be our medicine with our active life style Drugs do have a invisible stamp of greed ,thats why so many drugs and drug company are in rate race and incentive are going to doctor .Doctor should spend time with patient and advise drugs carefully.

  15. Ronnie
    Maryland
    Reply

    At 61 or 62 years of age, you should NOT need cataract surgery! I know people who are in their seventies that have had the surgery. I found out that my taking St Johns Wort and wearing very cheap sunglasses driving are what brought on my needing cataract surgery before I was in my seventies. And yes, I have stopped taking St Johns Wort, and the only sunglasses I wear are the ones they give you in the eye doctors office. It was a VERY expensive lesson learned since my health insurance refused to pay for all of the surgery and an expense I wouldn’t have had to rob Paul to pay Peter to pay for this early in life.

  16. Jen
    Ontario, Canada
    Reply

    My husband started statin RX Feb 2015 due to high cholesterol, and in October 2015 was diagnosed with early onset cataracts, at 54. The dr said in maybe 6 months he might need to comfort back, if they got worse. Within three months he was back in, January 2016 and now needs the surgery. It is outrageous that there was nothing in the RX info sheet to say anything about cataracts. The eye dr didn’t know anything about it either.

    • Bonnie West
      NC
      Reply

      No statins, no statins! This is all about big Pharma!
      Why do they keep changing the normal ranges? Because many people trust that their doctors want them to live longer and to avoid cardiovascular risks. The Drs want to go along with the pharmaceutical companies who make big profits!
      My father never had a cholesterol over 165 and suffered 3 heart attacks and died on the 3rd one @ the age of 72.
      I have tried them but had all kinds of side effects and now have developed a cataract. No statins for me!
      Flush free niacin worked well for me but do not take this without medical supervision or advice. My Dr. prescribed it for me.
      Best of luck!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

    • Dave
      England
      Reply

      Sorry that’s condescending. At 40 I was running half marathons, swimming 200 lengths (3miles) for charity. My diet was good my cholestrol bad. Scroll on 22 years. Cholestrol still high, put on statins and within two months developed cataracts. 6 months later I await my first eye op. I can no longer drive nor read. It’s debilitating.

    • Debbie
      Reply

      Sometimes high cholesterol is hereditary. My Step Dad is very healthy, and active and has been is whole life, but his cholesterol levels were always off the charts high just like my grandmother’s was. I’m very worried about him being on a statin drug. Just not worth the risks too me in my opinion.

    • SGH
      Reply

      Like Dave wrote, it IS condescending. My husband eats his fruits and vegetables, has been running and working out and maintaining a healthy weight for 30+ years, but still has to take a statin to regulate his cholesterol. And high blood pressure medication, too. In his case, heredity is a factor. One size doesn’t fit all.

    • Kevin
      USA
      Reply

      I’m puzzled by all this. My LDL was 140 within the year before my heart attack (clogged artery). I’m on 40mg lovastatin (for the past 4 months), and my LDL is currently 82. Should I continue lovastatin, or any statin? I do feel stiffer than I used to be, but I’m getting old (59). My dad (and his dad) had heart attacks in their mid-50’s (age), so I think my MI was genetic. I’m shocked to learn that LDL in the 200’s was considered normal.

      Due to a long history of jogging, my blood pressure is on the low side. I stopped the metoprolol because it caused me to be dizzy and fainting. Why did multiple doctors prescribe this for me after my MI when my blood pressure has always been low?

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

    • Larry M
      Raleigh, NC
      Reply

      Red Yeast Rice is merely natural Lovastatin. Don’t expect any different effects than pharmaceutical Lovastatin.

  24. 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

  25. 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??

  26. 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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