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.