Q. Last fall my doctor prescribed atorvastatin (Lipitor), and after several months I found I was having trouble remembering names and coming up with the right word. At dinner once I said “please pass the elephant” though I wanted the bread. I told my husband I thought I’d had a stroke.
In January a friend came to visit. She was worried about her memory and couldn’t think of her daughter’s name on the telephone. She too was on Lipitor.
I asked my doctor to prescribe a different cholesterol medicine. Within a couple of weeks I was more mentally alert. But my friend (still on Lipitor) was in worse shape and afraid she would lose her job. Her doctor said forgetfulness could not be due to the drug. She finally stopped taking Lipitor anyway and now is much sharper.
I am concerned that some people taking Lipitor might think such a reaction was just due to getting older. Is this side effect well known?
A. Side effects such memory problems, word scrambling and mental cloudiness have been linked to statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs for years but remain controversial. When patients taking drugs like atorvastatin, fluvastatin, lovastatin, pravastatin, rosuvastatin (Crestor) pitavastatin (Livalo) and simvastatin complain about confusion or forgetfulness many physicians chalk such concerns up to aging or anti-statin sentiment. Others maintain that if statins muck up the mental machinery it is an extremely rare side effect.
That said, the FDA recently acknowledged that people taking statins can experience problems with cognitive function: “Memory loss and confusion have been reported with statin use. These reported events were generally not serious and went away once the drug was no longer being taken.” Here is a link to the entire FDA safety Communication.
We are not as convinced as the FDA that reports of memory loss and confusion are not serious. We also are not sure that such cognitive dysfunction clears up once the drugs are stopped. We have heard from many people that the impairment can last for weeks or even months and some individuals may experience longer-term complications.
Cholesterol is often viewed as a dangerous compound, but it is an essential building block for many crucial chemicals and is also important in nerve function. Studies suggest that people with very low cholesterol may be more vulnerable to depression, so it’s not inconceivable that lowering cholesterol significantly might affect mood and mental function for some people.
To learn more about the pros and cons of statins (some people must take these drugs to avoid a serious heart event), we suggest our Guide to Cholesterol Control and Heart Health. You can also learn more about cholesterol management without statins. We think it is possible to keep your heart and your brain healthy and that you shouldn’t have to trade one for the other.
You will also find a whole chapter on heart health and cholesterol control in our book Best Choices From The People’s Pharmacy. We think this book provides a wonderful opportunity for people to make informed decisions about drugs and more natural ways of dealing with common health problems.