statins help or harm

A research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine (online, Nov. 17, 2014) points out that 97% of older Americans between 66 and 75 years of age should be taking statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs. That is based on recommendations from the ACC (American College of Cardiology) and the AHA (American Heart Association.

According to the guidelines, ALL men in that age bracket should be on medications like atorvastatin (Lipitor), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) or simvastatin (Zocor) even if they have normal cholesterol levels. Even though there are relatively few studies of older people and statins, the authors note that the guidelines will have almost every senior citizen taking such drugs.

The Headlines:

Not surprisingly, when an article comes out in such a prestigious medical journal suggesting that statins are the solution, the headline writers are all over it:

“Most Seniors Could Use Statins Under New Guidelines,” HealthDay Reporter

“New statin guidelines suggest that most patients between 60 and 75 years old should use statins to maintain their heart health” DailyRx News

“All Senior Citizens Under 76 Should Consider Statins to Reduce Cardiovascular Risks”

“Elderly should take cholesterol-lowering statins: US study” AFP (Agence France-Presse)

One cardiologist from Baylor University Medical Center, Jeffrey Schussler, was quoted as saying…

“Very few people have side effects when using statins, and dangerous side effects are exceptionally rare.”

Dr. Schussler has not been reading our emails or comments on this website. The authors of the research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine point out that:

“The effect of the new guidelines on older individuals is important because they are at risk for CVD [cardiovascular disease] but also may be prone to the adverse effects of statin use.”

In fact, the ACC and the AHA noted in 2002 in the journal Circulation (Aug. 20, 2002):

“As a rule, statin therapy should be employed more cautiously in older persons, particularly older thin or frail women…”

While cardiologists debate the statistics, we deal with real patients dealing with real side effects. Here are just a few of the thousands of stories we have received over the last few decades:

Liver Damage

“I have taken statins of all kinds and have had a bad reaction to every single one. My doctor would not take no for a answer when I told him about the side effects even though I almost had complete liver falure. He even tried to give me statins under other names.
Other people I have talked to describe memory loss and I ask if they take statins. The answer is always yes.
I refuse to take statins and had to change doctors. I do not understand why some of these hardheaded doctors keep giving these drugs when the person is clearly having side effects. If we have reactions from peanuts we’re told not to eat peanuts.” Lou Ann


“I have contacted you before about my problems with cholesterol medication. I have quit the statins.

“After 2 years of atorvastatin both feet became numb and tingly. I was diagnosed by a neurologist with neuropathy. I went on the internet and found a supplement that claims to restore nerve damage which I ordered. After using this for 5 weeks I can now, for the first time in 6 years, feel my feet in my shoes; know that I am wearing socks on my feet without looking; feel the different textures of the carpet. This is wonderful for me.

“The neurologist checked me for sugar and other usual causes of neuropathy, which were all normal. He never heard of statins causing this.” Lee

Transient Global Amnesia (TGA)

“I was on 20 mg of atorvastatin for some time. Three years ago I 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. (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 due to atorvastatin.”

“Approximately four years ago after leaving the gym, I experienced a TGA. I could not remember how to get to a coffee shop. My friend directed me. We had coffee and something to eat. She directed me to her house. I then drove home without help. I remember nothing after asking her to direct me to Paneras. This episode lasted about 1 hr. At that time I was on 20mgs of atorvastatin.

“I knew something was wrong and went immediately to my MD. He insisted I had been hypoglycemic. I new that was wrong. I made an appt. with a neurologist who treated me with medication after EEG and CT scan showed no problems.

“After reading about statins and TGAs I stopped both medications. My cardiologist was not happy and documented my statin refusal in my chart. Much time has passed and I have never had a second episode.” Kathy

Muscle (Myopathy) and Joint Problems

“My cholesterol was consistently in the 250 to 275 range for as long as testing was used.  However, 80 to 100 of that was ‘good’ cholesterol. I was not overweight and was very active.  It did not matter what kind of diet I ate.  The numbers were always the same.

“Finally, my new doctor wanted me to go on a statin, so I was put on Lipitor.  It was OK for about a year and my cholesterol lowered about 100 points (but my good cholesterol was reduced by half as well). I was also taking CoQ10 as a precaution.

“Gradually I noticed increasing muscle problems with cramps, weakness, aching, etc.  I began to suspect it might be the Lipitor.  I finally told the Doctor I wanted to discontinue it and it was suggested to use Crestor instead.  I did not have any muscle problems on the Crestor, but I had terrible digestive problems – diarrhea and room-clearing flatulence.

“I finally refused to take any more.  I am now free of all symptoms and back to my 250 cholesterol level.  I am happy with that.  My relatives all lived into their 80’s and 90’s active and in good health and they never took a statin.  Quality of life is more important to me than a laboratory number chosen by someone whose intelligence and agenda is not known to me.”

“I am a physician and my husband was placed on Crestor when he was 35. Within 4-6 weeks he developed severe muscle weakness, pain and double vision. He couldn’t walk or write. He couldn’t even give himself a shower.

“He was hospitalized twice. Prior to this he was very active. He was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis. It was a very severe case and it came on suddenly which isn’t typical for the disease.

“He had none of the risk factors for Myasthenia. I am convinced it was the Crestor. Five years later, with multiple medications and one surgery, he is doing better. As a physician I warn everyone about the potential unknown and dangerous side effects of these drugs. I am very disappointed that the FDA hasn’t done further investigations of statins.” S.W.

“I have been on simvastatin for nine months and recently stopped taking it because of joint pain in my left knee. I am 70 years old now and very active.

“I was having trouble standing with a straight knee. Getting up from a chair was a problem with only the one good leg to stand on and be stable. Mobility was becoming a problem.

“I kept going back to my orthopedic doctor for a shot for the discomfort. It would work for a few days or a week. I kept going back for information. He finally suggested a series of shots. I declined. Thats when I decided to stop taking simvastatin (though it really helped lower  my cholesterol).

“The results were amazing. My knee now feels great but I still need to take NSAIDS for arthritis pain twice a day. I just thought you would like to know one persons results with statin drugs.” Peggy

“I am sixty years old, and in excellent overall health with no history of heart disease. Because my cholesterol was high on ONE blood test, my doctor immediately put me on Lipitor. I wanted to try diet and exercise first, but she negated that idea.

“Over the course of two years on Lipitor, I developed terrible pains in my wrists, thumbs, feet, and legs. Then my eyebrows, eyelashes, and head hair began to fall out. I also got increasingly ‘spacey’ and started forgetting words and names. My doctor refused to accept that Lipitor could cause any of this.

“This may sound arrogant, but I simply quit taking it. My hair and eyelashes have grown back, and ALL muscle and joint pain is gone. My memory is also back to normal.

“In my opinion Lipitor is a dangerous drug, especially since medical doctors seem to be pushing it on people, then refusing to accept that it is causing serious side effects. I’m returning to a more natural style of health care – diet, exercise, vitamins. If I die from ‘lack of Lipitor,’ at least I’ll have a full head of hair!” Susan R.

The Bottom Line

There is no doubt that people who have had a heart attack, stent placement or diagnosed heart disease do benefit from statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs no matter what their age. But people whose only “risk factor” is collecting Social Security (ie, senior citizen status), do not necessarily need a statin automatically. Of course no one should stop taking any prescribed medication without discussing this with a physician. But we are not convinced that statin side effects are as rare as many cardiologists would like to believe.

Statins may be the right medicine for many people, but we doubt that all men over the age of 66 must be on such drugs. What do you think? Share your own statin story below.

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  1. Marien
    Bel Air, MD

    Never heard of the word “statin” and my doctor prescribed Crestor for mildly high LDL. When asked about alternatives, such as diet, he said “no alternative.” Very first dose — ONE DOSE — immediately experienced major “sparking” feeling in right jaw, numbness to right side of tongue (like a Novocain injection in to it) and sensation of minor difficulty swallowing. I experienced what felt like a terrible tooth ache in that right jaw that lasted terribly painful for 37 days. Nothing relieved the pain! Today, 101 days later, I continue with physical therapy and moderate to excruciating pain every day. I’m coming out of my fourth head “lock down” where my head can not move without extreme pain. Trigeminal Neuropathy. Taking Crestor was like playing a game of Russian roulette. These are not minor reactions like nausea, diarrhea, itching. This is nerve damage which may or may not be permanent. This is damage that has altered my life completely for the past 101 days. INVESTIGATE BEFORE YOU TAKE STATINS!! I’ve been hearing all sorts of similar reports now from friends, associates, their friends, and total strangers.

  2. Mike
    Glasgow UK

    I had a TIA, put on statin age 72, after about 7 months on Atorvastatin 40 mils daily very unpleasant pains etc upper right arm etc, I stopped taking drug,- different doctor at the practice very persuasive and I agreed to go back on statin, however my own experience and dare I say common sense, prevailed and I have NOT gone back on the statin!

    5 weeks after having stopped the statin the upper arm pain is substantially diminished — not gone completely yet. Now with a bit of pain I can get my right hand in my right hand trouser hip pocket ! Impossible because of pain 5 weeks ago.Getting slowly better –I will never take statin again.Maybe the wrong statin but who knows? I am not convinced. Are we all just guinea pigs? average weight, ex sportsman

  3. SALLY

    I am an 80-year-old woman whose doctor has tried to get me on statins for years, despite no history of heart disease, nor in my family. When I had a TIA a year ago, statins were recommended as a preventative for strokes. I finally gave in and took Crestor.

    Although I have had no muscle pains, my legs are significantly weaker, I’ve experienced brain fog, some confusion and memory loss. I realize at my age it’s difficult to determine whether the memory loss is totally due to the statins or just part of my age. However, after reading many articles and yours, I’m no longer going to take them. I am convinced that big pharma is behind this push. I do recall in the past that a level of 300 was acceptable. Who decided that it had to be lower than 300?? I smell a rat!

  4. mary m.

    I had 4 times when I was unable to walk. had to be in a wheelchair to get around for the day; medics had to come and get me and take me to hospital and 2 other occaisions. I wrote to merck abt these instances and my use of Zocor. and never took statins again in spite of the urging of many physicians.

  5. Frank

    I’m in the same boat. I’m going on 65; never had any cardiovascular events and have been on Lipitor for many years. My cardiologists always remind me of the same old thing “family history” where my grandfather and father passed away from heart attacks. In the past, I’ve had stress tests done, even a heart catheterization which I would never allow again except in an emergency.

    I’m on 20 mg. of Lipitor daily; have some pain in my wrist, but work out several days a week. I’ve been told to stay on this drug no matter what. In the last few years, I’ve noticed problems with recall; very unnerving. My cholesterol runs about 150 with a good risk factor. I’ve lowered the dosage to 10 mg./day and will cut that down to 3-4 days a week. I really believe some doctors are trying to protect themselves. In the event the patient has a cardiovascular occurrence without a statin, they’re concerned about lawsuits.

  6. Judy
    New york

    I hate taking any type of medicine period. I am a 60 year old woman and do my best to eat healthy, excersise and feels very good health wise. My doctor that has been going to for years tells me I should be taking all these types of medication and I ask him why he says it because at my age and the insurance companies sends him these letters asking why at my age is not taking any medication. So he wanted me to take statins, blood pressure pills and warn that he will soon put on metformin. Diabetics does run in my family but he says I am borderline and don’t think I need it as yet. Due my job lost I lost my insurance an no longer go to my doctor any more. The pharmacies call me every month to pick up the statins, and blood pressure pils but told the I have no coverage at this time so they took me of their list. Did I really need the medication? Does the insurance company works with the pharmacies? And doctors do they work with both pharmacies and insurance companies? I am now back on an insurance cheaper one and had to find a doctor who accepts it. Found one he immediately started me on metformin says I am diabetic. The medication makes me sick so told him he change it and put me on statins as well both medicine make me feel horrible? I cannot afford to go to any other doctor besides feel they all will try to push me on some kind of medication since I am at this age. I want to be taken off these pills that makes me feel more sick than ever. What should I do?

  7. John
    Diamondhead, MS

    I am 91 years old and have two knee problems. My cardiologist suggested I discontinue taking Lovastatin. What do you think. He stated that at my age there are no benefits.

    • Terry Graedon

      He has a good point. There is very little research on benefits of statins for people over 75.

  8. Addy

    I’m 29 and my cholesterol came back “high” on baseline tests my PCP ran. I’ve never had a heart attack, stroke, or other event and I’m still relatively young. Despite this, she immediately put me on 20mg Simvastatin. About 2 weeks in, I noticed what I described then as “almost-charlie-horses” in my calves and occasionally whole legs when I laid down to sleep at night. They weren’t horribly intrusive, but distracting enough to make getting to sleep a bit harder – yet overall mostly tolerable. However, around 3-4 weeks in, the muscle pain had become nearly debilitating and was occurring over my ENTIRE body (legs, arms, neck, back, abdomen – all of it!). Between it and spasms I was getting from another medication, I could barely move. My fasting blood glucose rose (not over “normal” thankfully, but did rise) and my liver function tests had nearly doubled; bringing them just over “normal values” (but, of course, not high enough to merit action or even concern according to doctors, who for some reason didn’t realize the obvious question there – which wasn’t so much “is it horrifically high now?” as it was “at what point will it STOP rising..?” I found out later most doctors will do exactly nothing about such things until levels are past 3x the normal limitations!).

    I spent about 6-7 hours after taking it one time – the last time – writhing in utter agony in my bed, unable to even get up, before calling my PCP’s office the second they opened the next morning to tell them that I was NOT going to keep taking that horrible pill anymore. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it – compromise wasn’t an option – my answer to every attempt at cajoling me was, unequivocally, NO.

    Later that day, I’d finally made it to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist told me the side effects I’d experienced were extremely common, despite my PCP downplaying them. If I hadn’t taken it upon myself to research it when I started taking it, I likely wouldn’t have even known to pin it as the culprit for what I was feeling (being that it was gradual and on/off until that last day, I thought I’d strained something exercising, had gas, etc at first). I wound up getting CoQ10 to help fix the damage it had been causing, and within the week (after both stopping Simvastatin and taking CoQ10) felt MUCH better; though it took another week or two to get back to normal.

    I should note that I’ve found out this year that I’m very sensitive to any kind of medication and even vitamins/supplements in general, but I will never, ever again put my body through what statins did to it (I *literally* spent the entire “recovery” period apologizing to my poor body for what I did to it – it was to that point where one even tries compromising/bribing with oneself, “I’m so sorry, I was so stupid – I swear I’ll take better care of you, if you’ll just stop hurting soon!”). But what aggravates me most is that the information packet DOES include many of the side effects – the pharmacist DID discuss it with me – and thankfully even my doctor didn’t deny the possibility (but did absolutely downplay how common it was and the severity it could get to :( ) of side effects; yet so many doctors dismiss them.

  9. Geraldine

    I read all the posts & none mentioned Pattern A & B in the make-up of cholesterol. One sticks to artery walls, the other doesn’t (don’t remember which one). I’ve always had very high cholesterol. Eons ago I asked a G.P. to run the test for the patterns: result-my cholesterol is the type that doesn’t stick to the artery walls. It seems to me that doctors routinely prescribe statins without going a step further to check out the type of cholesterol. More & more I’ve come to the collusion that a majority of doctors are practicing money not medicine.

  10. Karen

    My husband had a stent put in 4 years ago and all of a sudden two years ago at his regular check up the regular doctor put him on pravastatin although his cholesterol is low and almost too low. Ever since then, he has had sleep issues or I should say” I have” because he has wild dreams and hits and wrestles around during the night keeping me from a sound sleep. I swear it is the pravastatin but can’t say for sure as he has not been off of it to prove a point as the doctor says he needs it for his heart.

  11. PP

    For people on statins who want to quit, having high LDL, try lowering the dosage–if 20 mg, cut the pill and take 10, then at the next blood test see what’s happening. If it’s OK, take them only 4 times a week. In the meantime, get your HDL up with exercise.

    My husband was told he had high cholesterol and needed to take a statin; he refused and the doctor wouldn’t speak to him again. When I finally got a copy of the blood test, it was the HDL that was driving it up! Thankfully we got him to another doctor.

    Big pharma is only interested in the bottom line, and not willing to deal with things that would really help people like vaccinations for things like Ebola!

  12. Jeanne
    Houston, TX

    The fist time I saw this cardiologist, the first words out of his mouth were, “Every woman over 55 should be taking Lipitor.” I looked at him and said, “Not in my lifetime.” I went on to explain that I had read about memory loss as a side effect in the People’s Pharmacy. He was not entertained by my remarks. He suggested that I let him know if I had memory problems. [I thought to myself, how could I know if I had memory problems…if I couldn’t remember.] I went on to say that I took other medications that had memory loss as a side effect and wasn’t going to add another one.

    He, apparently, was not used to patients and/or women talking back. He gave me 6 months to lower my cholesterol. He wasn’t pleased when, after 6 months, I had done that.

    I have since changed cardiologists.

  13. Ernest M.
    Oakland, CA

    I could not agree more with this article. Kaiser pushes statins and the doctors look for excuses to get you on them. I was prescribed simvastatin, and within weeks my ankle pain was so severe that I would fall down getting out of bed. I was perplexed and did not know that the statin was involved. After a round of tests and xrays and appointments, the consensus was that I had arthritis. Duh. I’m 68 years old. I could have told them that.

    The sudden onset simply was ignored. I wondered about the statin and stopped taking it for a month, the pain went away. (My physician had the nerve to tell me the placebo effect was the reason I was having problems)

    After two more rounds of simvastatin with similar results, I told my physician I was done with it. He prescribed pravastatin, saying it was metabolized differently. I had the exact same problems, except the pain went from my ankle to my back, and was so excruciating that I got a script for codeine in order to be able to sleep. I stopped the pravastatin and the pain went away.

    The fewer medications I take, the better I feel. I now view American medicine as greatly influenced by big Pharma and based on symptom alleviation, not cure.

  14. Cindy M. B.

    Thanks so much for that very comprehensive review. It makes me angry that my own doctor keeps trying to push Rx meds on me for the tiniest little things, despite my objections. I even quote info from the PP, and she still doesn’t care! Almost every single Rx drug contributes to 2 things in “seniors”: loss of memory, and loss of energy. I need that like a hole in the head!! I would never take a statin unless I really, really needed it. Thankfully, I don’t.

  15. Paul B.
    Wake Forest, NC

    I am 77 now and have my yearly check-up with my internist in 12 days, I wonder if she will fight me if I want to stop my 20 mg zocor for a month or two.

    I have several of the symptoms described and would sure like to be free of them.

  16. Gloria J. T.
    Sparks Nevada

    I hate the word statin, myself & most of my friends have all had terrible muscle aches, fuzzy memory, stomach aches. On & on… I am so angry that they want everyone to take these awful pills. Can’t fight big money I guess.

  17. Penny H.
    United States

    Add Zetia to the list. My doctor assured me that it was not a statin and that I should take it because of high cholesterol. I tried for about two weeks and began having all the same side effects as I had on a previous statin drug. Muscle soreness, aching wrists, etc. So I looked it up online and it has the exact same side effects as statin. I quit taking it and almost immediately lost my side effects. At age 75 I don’t think my cholesterol is a problem and will refuse further intervention.

  18. Jean P. S.

    Sorry, I’m too old to take statins. Even when I was younger, I would NOT take them. They are not good.

  19. Mary

    My cholesterol was a bit over 200 several years ago. I specifically asked my physician NOT to order a statin drug. I was put on Niaspan and had major flushing so discontinued that.
    My last test about a year ago the LDL was about 135 and I am content. HDL was good, CRP good, triglycerides also good.
    Since that time I have read numerous reports that cholesterol is not the demon we are led to believe. It is essential for our lives.
    I will not take any statin for any reason. Minimal benefit if any with major possibilities for serious side effects.

  20. Michele
    United States

    I took Lipitor for 7 years, and then was told I have diabetes. I told my doctor that I didn’t want to take Lipitor anymore, and would treat the high cholesterol with Niacin and Red Rice Yeast. The doctor said she couldn’t work with me if I wasn’t going to follow her directions, so I got a new doctor. My cholesterol and A1C are within normal limits. A few months ago, I heard the news that statins cause diabetes.

  21. David

    Your interview with the fertility expert the other day was interesting but in conflict with my experience. Heat matters more than he thinks in fertility.
    After years of trying to get pregnant , Dr. Dubin in NY performed a varicocelectomy and a year later my daughter was born – now age 35.
    18 months later I was hot again. Giving up hot baths and eliminating tight briefs for 3 months resulted in the birth of my son a year later – now age 33,

  22. O.G.

    I have no statin story, because I won’t take the bloody things. My doctor wanted me to, just “as a precaution,” but he knows me well enough to know that when I say “No!” I have a reason, and mean it.

    You have to worry about a drug that sends both you and the doctor’s RN into a chorus of “Uh, uh, baby! Ain’t no WAY!” when statins are mentioned.

    When I read reports on new studies and pronouncements (like the ones in the JAMA piece) I think of my old high school journalism teacher telling us “Remember, whenever you read an article, to ask yourself ‘What are they trying to sell me?'” These days, more than ever, that’s good advice.

  23. Bonnie E.

    Bottom line: statin drugs run your muscles and cause memory problems–why people in there 60s and 70s are using canes and walkers and have CRS. Dangerous drug!

    Our friendly caring doctors have turned into conduits for the drug companies.

    There are alternatives such as eating right and exercise–sweating [or glistening as my southern mother says] gets rid of bad cholesterol–so get off the drug and get up off the couch and get responsible for your own health instead of popping a pill–walk and join an exercise class which help to keep you at it!

  24. J. David Auner
    Springfield, MO, USA

    The authors of this piece and their editors at JAMA should all start taking Mevacor/lovastatin 40 mg. After 6 weeks we won’t be subjected to any more of these outrageous recommendations because their dementia will be starting from REM sleep deprivation.

    Statins at best only reduce vascular risk by 20% and there are a dozen safer methods to reduce risk by 20%. High risk patients may benefit from addition of a statin to a regimen of multiple risk reduction to get that extra 20%. The risks of statins rise markedly with age and other medications or intercurrent illness. These authors suffer from a lack of vision and experience.

  25. Julie

    The way I see it, of course cardiologists are going to continue to prescribe statins. If we didn’t take them they wouldn’t get their kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies. You have to be your own best judge.

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