The People's Perspective on Medicine

Do Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Damage Memory?

Do cholesterol-lowering drugs cause memory problems? That question has been controversial for years. A new study adds fuel to the fire.

Q. I read that a new study on statins and short-term memory was published in the June 8, 2015, JAMA Internal Medicine. Would you address this? It seems contrary to what I have read in your column.

A. The relationship between cholesterol-lowering drugs and memory problems has been controversial for decades. More than 15 years ago we began hearing from patients taking statins that they were having trouble coming up with the right words or remembering names and numbers. Some described the feeling as brain fog.

Lance

“I went off atorvastatin (Lipitor) in the spring and noticed an improvement in my memory. I then went back on it three weeks ago and noticed memory loss (blanking on names, etc.). I have decided to switch to another drug.”

Chuck

“About six weeks ago, my doctor doubled my atorvastatin, from 20 milligrams to 40 milligrams. For about the past four weeks I have experienced progressive memory loss. Examples:

  • couldn’t remember my brother’s phone number
  • couldn’t find my baby’s plate of food after preparing it
  • couldn’t remember recent trips
  • couldn’t remember a restaurant I ate in
  • couldn’t remember to attend a meeting…numerous other episodes

“This is totally out of character for me. I had begun worrying and was going to call my doctor this week. This morning I read an article in the local newspaper entitled ‘Can Cholesterol-lowering Drugs Wreck Memory?’ It provided me with your e-mail address.

“I have called my doctor and am awaiting his return call. For your information, I am 39 years old and have been on atorvastatin about 4 years.”

Gerald

“In a recent article, you asked for reader experiences relating cholesterol lowering medications and memory loss. Although I have had no total global amnesia which you described, I wish to advise you of the following:

“I am a 60-year-old male, and have been taking 20 mg pravastatin daily for about 5 or 6 years, with no known memory issues.

“About 9 months ago, my doctor insisted that I also add another cholesterol lowering drug called colestipol (Colestid). I take 1 mg tablets, three (3) tablets, twice daily. (Originally he prescribed 2 tabs, twice daily, but increased the amount a few months ago.

“Over the past 6 months or so I have been aware that I am increasingly absent minded; easily distracted and forgetful. Formerly I was extremely focused and could perform complex tasks with great organization. Lately, I seem to get somewhat lost or disoriented. For example, making multiple copies of diverse documents, with varying numbers of each, I frequently became confused and not sure where I was in the process. An employee of the copy shop assisted me with great organization.

“I have begun to be concerned about my memory and wondered if these were early signs of aging. My senior moments are becoming more common. However, your article questioning whether anti-cholesterol medicines could affect this has me wondering. “These are my experiences and thoughts. I cannot say whether a link exists between the medication and the experiences.”

Anonymous

“I was on simvastatin plus ezetimibe and while my cholesterol went from 350+ down to 190 in five weeks, I ended up having TGA (transient global amnesia) for over 8 hours. I knew who I was as well as family and friends but I didn’t know the year, where I was (didn’t recognize streets I have driven on for many years, etc.) I asked my husband the same 5 questions over and over and over in the hospital until late in the evening when everything returned.”

Cholesterol Lowering Drugs and Memory Problems

In the study you refer to (June 8, 2015, JAMA Internal Medicine), researchers crunched massive amounts of data from the medical records of nearly a million people in Great Britain. They compared people taking statins to others who were not taking cholesterol medicines. They also reviewed data from people who were taking other, non-statin cholesterol-lowering drugs.

People taking statins were four times more likely to report memory problems to their doctors. The higher the dose, the greater the risk of cognitive impairment. Other kinds of cholesterol-lowering drugs were also strongly linked to forgetfulness.

The investigators concluded:

“Conclusions and Relevance: Both statin and nonstatin LLDs [lipid lowering drugs] were strongly associated with acute memory loss in the first 30 days following exposure in users compared with nonusers but not when compared with each other. Thus, either all LLDs cause acute memory loss regardless of drug class or the association is the result of detection bias rather than a causal association.”

We know this is doctorspeak and a bit hard to understand, but the bottom line is this: People taking statins had a “4-fold increase in the risk of developing acute memory loss in the 30 days immediately following the first statin exposure when comparing statin users with nonusers of LLDs.” In other words, a 400 percent increased risk of forgetfulness, confusion, etc., compared to people not taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. People taking other kinds of cholesterol-lowering drugs also experienced memory problems compared to those not taking such medications.

As far as we can tell, this new study does not resolve the question of whether cholesterol-lowering drugs can impair memory, but we do not think it absolves these drugs either. If you are interested in such issues, you may want to read our article, “Is Low Cholesterol Linked to Forgetfulness?”

Until someone does a large study over a long period of time and carefully tests for cognitive function, we won’t have a definitive answer. In our opinion the current study just adds to the confusion.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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These are very interesting. My question if someone could answer would be. My husband has been on pravastin for about 2 years. He takes one tablet every other day. Around the same time he starting having mini seizures and is taking 2000mg of Levetiracetam a day. Lately his short term memory has begun to be bad. Could these drugs taken together cause his memory loss problems. If so what needs to be done. Thank you. Brenda

I took Zetia when it was discovered that I could not tolerate statins. I was asked to teach a class for another instructor, and got totally lost. Honestly, perhaps the students thought I was “on something.” I was, but for cholesterol?!. The worst episode occurred when I could not find my way home. I’d been working and living in the same place for 10 years and it was only a 10-minute drive. Terrifying. I stopped taking it, and luckily, my memory was OK after that. No more problems with teaching, for one thing.

My sister was not so lucky. She had a closed-head injury some years ago. She was also put on Zetia. But her symptoms were attributed to her injury coupled with getting older. She was on it for much longer, about a year. Luckily, she mentioned to me that she was taking this, and I told her my story. She stopped taking it and over time reverted to the much more functional state she had before the drug.

People with some genes do not tolerate this drug. The doctors pooh-poohed this to both of us, but we just went off them anyway.

My 88 yr old father who had been still working full time with a sharp mind was recently put back on 40 mg of Lipitor. His memory has since declined rapidly and he is very confused. I am tempted to tell him to quit taking it without telling the doctor. He is scheduled to soon see a neurologist. I just dont know what to do.

Hi im really sorry to hear that. My partner 46 took atorvastatin for 4 weeks and lost his memory he is still recovering 10 months later from it. Its been a frightening and frustrating experience. Doctors do not seem to want to admit that these drugs have caused the problems but developing advanced dementia symptoms over a few weeks and then improving when medication was stopped i dont feel i need their confirmation. I have researched quite a lot. Dr golomb has some articles also dr graveline if you google these also uk gp dr malcom kendrick. Neither of us are taking any statins for the rest of our lives. Well wishes & prayers from us!

Several years ago I was on Lipitor. Went off of it due to the start of memory issues. Two years ago a new doctor put me on pravastatin 20mg. I am now having trouble remembering the names of things, calling up the correct words when talking and feel as though I am in a “fog” a lot of the time. I have little energy and hard to get chores completed. I am having tingling in my feet and hands……. sometimes muscle weakness. Could all of this be due to this medicine?????

After reading the info above, I think I will once again go off of this drug. If I correct the problems I’m having….. no more of these meds for me!!!!!!

Because I have heard so many negative comments about statin drugs, I refused to take them (total cholesterol count, 217). My HDL is 63. However, I agreed to take Slo-Niacin 500mg tablets to lower my total count. My question is, “Does Slo-Niacin have the same memory effect as other low dosage statin drugs”?

To be honest, I can’t believe you actually say much more research is needed when you say over 400% of people report memory issues with statins. Lately, Peoples Pharmacy seems really to have seriously lightened up on reporting adverse effects of drugs. For those of us who work with elder care, we rely on accurate and ongoing truth from you guys. Don’t lighten up on the drug industry. Keep your watchdogs barking!

Frena,

No worries. You may want to listen to last week’s radio show! Link below:

https://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2015/06/18/show-997-has-big-pharma-corrupted-health-care/

We do need more research on statins and memory. Though we have been reporting this issue for years doctors will only believe there is a problem if there is solid research.

Almost 13 years ago, I lost my passion to these drugs. I was a Critical Care RN, and I loved every bit of my career. When on Oct 10, 2002, I was admitted to UW Madison, in an Alzheimer’s like state… I could not walk, could not speak coherently, could not feed myself, nor verbalize the need to use the restroom, so I was incontinent of bowel and bladder. Brain MRI showed Multiple Scattered Lesions, MS was considered and ruled out, Brain Biopsy was done, showed Autophagic Vacuoles (holes in my brain) due to Apoptosis (Programmed Cell Death), New Variant Creutzfeld Jakob Disease was considered, Electron Microscopy was done showing Mitochondrial Mutations most similar to Mitochondrial Encephalomyopathy, with Lactic Acidosis and Stroke Like Episodes (MELAS).

After 21 days inpatient, and no improvements, It was being arranged to transfer me to a nursing home (at 34years old), married only 4 years, had a 3 year old son, I was evaluated by every neurologist at UW Madison, all with some pretty wild diagnosis, yet not one considered the fact I had been on a statin, which lowers cholesterol by blocking Acetyl Co A Reductase Enzyme in the beginning of the Mevalonate pathway, which blocks each and every one of the remaining 200 steps in this pathway, including production of Cholesterol, Dolichols, Vitamin D, Testosterone, Steroid Hormones and Ubiquinone (CoQ10) which among other duties, is responsible for controlling Apoptosis by allowing older, weak cells to die, and replace them with new and healthy cells. But without CoQ10, this process is allowed to go uncontrolled. It wasn’t until I was asked to be evaluated by a visiting professor, who suggested I begin a Mitochondrial Cocktail (Essentially a dozen vitamins, amino acids and UBIQUINONE) it was about 36 hours after starting this cocktail, that I began to slowly improve, I could recognize my wife and my son, my parents and close friends. I was able to answer simple questions, follow simple commands, and no longer had to wear diapers.

I was discharged home a few days later with a diagnosis “Viral Encephalitis” in spite of the brain biopsy, muscle biopsy, MRI scan, Electron Microscopy findings. Over $300,000 in hospital care, and seeing almost every neurologist and Neurology Resident and Student, I was sent home with a diagnosis of VIRUS.

Several weeks later, my wife and I saw Dr Beatrice Golomb of the UCSD Discussing the Statin Effects Study, she was to be doing…My wife asked me to enroll, which I did, and had my medical records sent to UCSD, and when the study concluded, I received a phone call from Dr Golomb, informing me that I was one of several patients with similar courses of illness, and similar biopsy finding… she informed me she referred our cases to one of the world’s foremost, mitochondrial experts, Dr Doug Wallace, PhD at UC Irvine, and it was his opinion that my use of Lipitor was the likely causal contributor to the Mitochondrial Mutations, as well as the (Apoptosis) Holes in my brain. Dr Golomb so nicely asked if she could speak to my Neurologist re the Statin Effects Study findings. I told her yes. She called my Neurologist at UW Hospital, and shared her study findings as it related to my case, and he basically shrugged her off. She asked if she could speak to my prescribing doctor, and I said please do, because he wants me to restart a statin. She called his office and spoke to him, and was shut down as she was by my neurologist.

Next time I saw my prescriber, he told me, “If you want to be treated by a doctor in California, then I should move to California, but if you are my patient, then you do as I say”…. Yes, I fired him on the spot…. Arrogance before your patients? I was not impressed. I am an Admin on a facebook group, (Side effects from Lipitor, Lovastatin and other statin drugs) with nearly 700 members, including 3 chemists, and 2 cardiologists, one is Dr Barbara Roberts, Cardiologist of 40 years and professor at Brown University, and author of the book “The Truth About Statins: Risks and Alternatives to Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs” she very much explains for the average Joe, the literature and clinical studies, and explains how too many people are being “treated” with statins, when the evidence does not support this. For instance, she explains that NEVER has any woman been proven to benefit from Statins, and the only population which has benefitted are middle aged men, with established heart disease… (this is called secondary prevention… There is no proof to support Statins as a Primary Prevention. Dr Graveline has books which are also extremely enlightening.

As of today, almost 13 years since my illness and stopping the Statin, I remain disabled due to cognitive deficiencies, peripheral neuropathy, muscle pain, profound fatigue…none of which was in the brochure, and certainly not disclosed in an Informed Consent.

I had high cholesterol, I started eating legumes 1/2 cup three times a day with meals. After a few months the doc took me off the drugs.
Finding a good nutritionist made all the dif. I still eat them at least twice a day.

About 12 yrs ago I was started on zocor for mildly elevated cholesterol. I immediately noticed memory loss and discontinued taking it after a couple of months I researched it on the internet but at that time the only info I could find was a study being done in CA , I think USC.
Now, I have been dx’d as having had some small, silent strokes so I rather reluctantly felt I must try the prescribed Crestor. I seem to have no ill effects (including memory loss) so far and it’s working beautifully for my lipids. I do also take co q 10, which is supposed to fight against side effects of LLDs.
I must include that I tried red yeast rice to lower the lipids, however I had a rather stark elevation of my liver enzymes which immediately went back to normal when it was discontinued.

I have been on and off statins for many years due to having very high cholesterol even though I regularly exercise, eat a healthy diet, and am not overweight. There were some statins that caused me to have tingling in my feet or muscle pain, but never memory loss. Presently I am taking a low dosage of Crestor without apparent side effects.

I believe every word that I have read about Statins, and that my doctor still insists on putting me back on this drug.
I will not agree.

About 15 years ago, my cholesterol began to creep up over several years until it was in the quite high range. I tried omega 3 from fish oil but found that the oil caused stomach distress. I always try to do natural rather than pills so did only a small amount of research and found that walnuts have a high amount of Omega 3’s compared to other nuts. I began taking one ounce of walnuts without fail with my breakfast and my cholesterol began to go down over the next year. It has been at a good, safe level for at least 13 years.

I went on a statin drug and very quickly noticed memory problems. This was several years ago before much publicity, but I researched and found an article which I took to my doc to discuss. I went off statins and have done well on slow release niacin and high dose fish oil. The bad news is that my mention of ‘memory loss’ got into my medical notes and I was subsequently denied long term care insurance because of ‘dementia’. Be careful…

From the introduction of Zocor to 2009, I monitored patients on statins for sleep problems, memory problems and mental function. Mevacor/lovastatin, the first statin on the market, causes nearly universal sleep dysfunction with suppression of REM sleep, memory loss and after some time, significant loss of cognitive function. When patients were switched from Mevacor to Zocor because of the sleep disturbance side effect, almost all improved in all these parameters. Apparently doctors forgot this lesson and Merck left the bad drug on the market. Studies of statins need to be read with an eye to the year of the study and what generics were being forced on patients. When Mevacor went to generic availability, I was able to return many people to normal sleep and some to work by switching to another statin. Hydrophilic statins should cause less brain dysfunction and I believe that is supported clinically. Why Zocor and Lipitor only caused 2-3% and 5 – 6% sleep problems and memory problems is apparently an unanswered question. This episode in medicine shows the danger of giving clinical decision making to companies with only the next quarter’s profit in mind. Sleep studies were never done on Mevacor but they should be done on any drug which is in the body or brain during sleep. Should we address hs dosing of Topamax next?

Tell us about Topamax at bedtime? I’ve heard it called “Dopamax” because it causes people to be dopey.

With regard to statins and memory loss, I would like to refer people to a website: spacedoc.com. It is a site by Dr. Duane Graveline, MD who is a retired USAF and NASA flight surgeon. He wrote a book entitled: Lipitor, Thief of Memory, which describes his own experience with Lipitor as well as other issues regarding statins.

Wonder Drug That Stole My Memory

I have no personal experience of statins but a person close to me was on Zocor (=simvastatin) many years ago. I remember being surprised that his once so fantastic memory was no longer there. I couldn´t understand why until I went on the Internet and started reading critical books, patient stories etc. In his case, the symptoms didn´t come suddenly, rather little by little over the years. In 2009, I found an interesting article from England – Wonder drug that stole my memory – with 140 comments. You will find it if you google.

Dr. Duane Graveline (www.spacedoc.net) suffered from a different type of memory loss – TGA (=Transient Global Amnesia). He has done a lot to make people aware of the connection between statins and memory loss – and so have you – Peoples Pharmacy. Thank you.

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