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Myths and Facts About Statins

Do these cholesterol drugs live up to the hype? Get the facts.

Q&A with Dr. Lindsay Carter

If you’re not on a statin yourself, you probably know folks who are. Crestor (rosuvastatin), Lipitor (atorvastatin), Zocor (simvastatin), and other statins are the most common treatment for high cholesterol. But are they miracle drugs? Or overhyped? Dr. Carter cuts through the confusion.

Let’s start with a statin fact — why do so many people take these drugs?
Because they work really well! Over the years, study after study has shown they lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke. With some patients, statins can cut the risk by up to 40%.  

So they save lives?
Absolutely. Heart disease is the leading cause of death around the world, and statins are an important treatment. I think if you ranked all medications by the number of lives they save, statins would be in the top 5 — up there with antibiotics.

But do you think maybe too many people are on these medications?
I think it’s a myth that lots of doctors are handing out statin prescriptions to people who don’t need them. Research shows the opposite — people who actually need them aren’t getting them.

Okay, so who does need to take statins?
Definitely people who have already had a heart attack or stroke, since statins can prevent a second heart attack or stroke. And in general, we recommend statins for people who have high cholesterol, heart disease, or conditions that raise the chances of heart disease, like diabetes.

Let’s back up — can you give us a quick explanation of how statins work on cholesterol?
Sure, here’s a simple version. LDL cholesterol is this waxy material in your blood. Over time, it can clog up your arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Statins stop your body from making as much LDL. As the LDL levels in your blood go down, your risk of a heart attack or stroke does too.

What about the side effects — how bad are they?
Not nearly as bad as many people think. You can get mild side effects like achy muscle pain, but most people don’t. Also, mild side effects like those usually go away quickly once you stop the drug. More serious side effects are very rare. Unfortunately, some of my patients are really scared of these drugs, based on myths they read on the web or hear from friends.

So if you have side effects, what should you do?
See your doctor — they’ll assess how serious the side effect is and come up with a plan.  When my patients have muscle aches, I usually reduce the statin dose or have them take a break from the drug for a month or so — we call that a “drug holiday” — and then try again.  Often, the side effects don’t come back.

So most people feel okay when they start taking statins?
Yes, you’ll probably feel the same — and that actually disappoints some people. They want to feel different, so they know the drug is doing something. But even if you can’t feel them, the effects of statins are real. They’re preventing serious health problems. And they’ll only work if you keep taking them every day.

Any other statin myths you want to debunk?
Statins do a lot to protect your heart health. But I have patients who take things too far. They come in and say, “Since I’m on a statin now, that means I can put butter on everything!”

So statins aren’t a free pass to eat whatever you want and quit exercising?
Right. If you’re taking a statin, you still need to follow a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat and get regular physical activity. Statins are great! They save lives. But they’re not magic.

The Takeaway

  • Talk to your doctor about whether you need statins
  • If you have side effects from statins, your doctor can help you deal with them
  • If you have a prescription for statins, make sure to take your medication every day (just like it says on the bottle)
  • Even if you’re on a statin, you still need to eat a heart-healthy diet and get regular physical activity

This article is for general reference only. Always talk to your doctor or other health professional for medical advice.