statins help or harm

Statins to lower cholesterol are a pillar of cardiological treatment. People with high cholesterol take medications like atorvastatin or simvastatin to reduce blood lipids and prevent heart attacks. There is evidence that these drugs make a difference for people with heart disease. They also appear to benefit middle-aged men at high risk for heart problems. But do statins help or harm healthy elderly individuals? That is a big and important question.

Do Statins Help or Harm Older People?

Q. My father is 76 and in very good health. His physician has prescribed atorvastatin even though his cholesterol is under 200. He follows a Mediterranean diet with lots of vegetables. He bikes almost every day, but he is starting to complain that his leg muscles are becoming weaker. Does he really need to take a statin?

A. Doctors have been debating this question for decades. Most of the early clinical trials did not include people over 75. Studies of older people have produced unimpressive and contradictory results.

The Evidence on Statins for Seniors:

A recent study examined the health records of more than 46,000 people who were at least 75 years old. The authors found that individuals without diabetes who took statins for at least five years derived no discernible health benefit (BMJ, Sep. 5, 2018).  The statin takers did not have less heart disease or live any longer than people who did not take statins. Those with diabetes did benefit for a while, but by the time they reached their nineties the usefulness of these cholesterol-lowering drugs had melted away.

We discuss this topic in much greater detail along with other medications that can be problematic for older people in our book, Top Screwups.

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  1. Gary

    Always, always obtain second opinions from the doctors. I am alive now because I obtained a medical second opinion. When I was diagnosed with A-fib in 2008 the initial cardiologist informed me that I needed open heart surgery. I obtained a second opinion, and after a cardio version I was placed on several medications. In August 2017 I received a catheter oblation, and I only take medication as needed. No more episodes of A-fib. My diet is plant-based whole foods, and I go for forty to forty-five minute walks at least four times per week.

    AARP magazine indicates that more than 60% of open heart surgeries are not necessary. My observation is that open heart surgeries can actually shorten life span. Recently a friend had open heart surgery, and he died shortly after the surgery. Get a second or third opinion always, always, always. I had a doctor attempt to put me on statins back in 1999. I did not take them. Why am I still alive, clear minded, and feeling so good at 81? Answer: I did not blindly follow the orders of doctors, who do not experience the deadly side affects from the drugs which may do more harm than good.

  2. drnetwork
    Olympia, WA

    There is no question in my mind that statins have prolonged my life. Twenty years ago, my total cholesterol was 325. I don’t know what my LDL was then; I’m not sure that they broke it down to LDL and HDL on that particular test. But I’m sure it was dangerously high. A few years later, I began to have subtle symptoms of heart disease, and I was put on a low dose of Lovastatin. In retrospect, I believe that I should have been put on a higher dose, or preferably, switched to Lipitor at a high dose. I was on Lovastatin for several years, and it did lower my cholesterol but not enough to escape heart disease.

    I underwent triple-bypass surgery for multi-vessel disease about 11 years ago. I was then put on a stronger statin (eventually Atorvastatin-generic Lipitor). That, with some dietary changes, allowed me to achieve an LDL lower than 70. I’m now 69 years old, and I’ll be very interested to see the results of further research along these lines, i.e., the effectiveness of statins in elderly people who are healthy vs.those who have documented heart disease. There may be a diminished value for healthy individuals, but I will be surprised (and concerned) if future data reveals that statins lose their effectiveness among elderly subjects who have genetically high cholesterol and documented heart disease. That would spell trouble for people like me.

  3. Fred
    Bothell, WA

    I’m seventy-three with heart disease (including one nearly fatal MI). So I look at the issue of statins from this perspective and position. In my case, I have no incentive to stop taking Crestor at this time. I had my heart attack at age sixty after having stopped my statin two or three months prior (Lipitor).

  4. Carole
    Western Australia

    Statins caused problems with my liver as well as giving me aches and pains. I only took them for a short while and stopped. My bloods immediately returned to normal and my pain disappeared.

  5. Trudy

    I agree that Health care is detrimental to our health. I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure and after a previous medication made my legs swell and gain weight I am currently o losartan potassium. But I have no life. I have diarrhea, constantly. I am reluctant to go outside because I more than likely will have an episode. I used to walk 5 miles a day now I am housebound. I cannot go places with my friends. I cannot go to the gym. I have pains in the backs of my legs. I never had those problems before taking this medication. I cannot lose the weight I gAined because I cannot exercise. The pharmacist told me that it is not the medication. I am so depressed.

    • Bill

      Hey, just go ask the MD for an alternative hypertension med. I recently switched TO losartan from lisinopril because of increasing side effects which were documented in the lisinopril literature that I’d never bothered to read. Losartan and I are getting along just fine so I bet there’re any number of alternatives out there for you, one of which won’t cause you any side effects.

  6. Bob

    About a year or two ago, my doctor lowered the dosage of “statins”, and I cannot recall at the moment what my reading is, but I do have leg weakness.

  7. jane

    It seems cardiologists want everyone’s cholesterol below 100 for some reason that remains obscure to me. Three questions, do they read ANY of the reports calling that into question, are they ALL on the take from big pharma, and how many of THEM take a statin? They seem to be among the worst at treating “their” organ with complete disregard for the rest of the body. Perhaps it is that seemingly american motto… If a little is good, a lot will be better.

    I’ve read a lot of articles, meta-analyses, etc. and it looks to me like the “benefits” and need for statins is dubious at best. Here, more that many arenas, the caveat Do No Harm seems to have gone out the window. If (as I’ve read more than once) one needs to take one for 6 years for primary prevention to add 4-8 DAYS to your life, why start a 90 year old in good health, risking debilitating side effects, to achieve a “desirable number”? Why, when the benefit is so small, and the number needed to treat quite large are so many talked into it?

    • Jeannette

      Agree Jane,
      They do more harm than good that’s for sure if you are prepared to get yourself into a good diet and exercise this med should definitely not be needed. Here is another excellent independent body that reviews medications:

  8. Victor Butschek, R.Ph.

    The statin subject has much controversy. Seems that the positive effects discussed are mostly from studies prepared by the pharmaceutical companies that manufacturer the statins. At the pharmacy I work at the computer warnings that pop up when entering prescription data always has red flags about statin use over 65 due to the negative side effects and no reliable studies showing benefit. The Debeers warnings are pretty specific so I would recommend talking to the doc and ask point blank what positive effects are to be expected and is that greater than the risks. Some studies have shown that taking a gram of fish oil and walking 30 min a day produces provable positive effects greater than anything to be expected from statins with no side effects. Just a thought.

  9. Bob
    South Carolina

    It’s amazing that the doctor prescribed a statin for a patient that had cholesterol under 200 and as a possible cure for leg pains which is natural as one ages.

  10. Toni
    San Francisco, CA USA

    You do not address active people in their 70s with cholesterol over 200 (perhaps slightly over and higher being a separate category) with a family history of stroke.

  11. Sylvia

    Being able to ride your bike is probably much more beneficial than any statin. Also, statins can cause diabetes, so how could they possibly benefit someone who has it? Here’s hoping the muscle problem goes away if he stops the statin.
    Time to start questioning when your doctor wants you to take a pill.

  12. Maggie

    At age 78, I have been taken off of statins completely after being on pravastatin 20 mg for at least a couple years. My cholesterol was 263. We spent a year trying to ascertain what was giving me pain in my thighs so extensive that I was walking with a cane, and I was waking nightly with the pain. Finally, I realized that I was awakened with pain at night 3-4 hours after taking the tablet. An ultrasound also revealed small tears in my achilles tendon. I did extensive research and found European reports that linked tendon damage with statins. When I stopped under my doctor’s recommendation, within a couple weeks 75% of the pain was gone. However, muscle aching still continues 9 months after I stopped. My son, who is a serious cyclist, was on another stronger statin and experienced such pain and weakness in his arms that he could no longer bike up hills on long rides. There needs to be more publicity about the side effects of these drugs.

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