If you have issues with high cholesterol, there’s a chance that you’ve heard about the benefits of using statins to improve your health. These drugs, while potentially very effective, also come with the risk of unwanted side effects, so it’s important to understand exactly what they do and what the possible risks are.
Statins are cholesterol-lowering medications that are used to prevent plaques from forming in the arteries and to lower the risk of heart attack. These drugs are prescribed to individuals who have high cholesterol, which can be defined in one of the following two ways:
- Total cholesterol level is 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher
- Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) level is 130 mg/dL or higher
Having high cholesterol doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual needs statins, however. Doctors only prescribe these drugs to those who also have a risk for heart attack or stroke. This usually means that at least one of the following factors is also present (in addition to high cholesterol):
- Poor general health
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- Family history of cardiovascular disease
- Family history of high cholesterol
- Overweight or obese
- Peripheral artery disease
In addition to lower-cost, generic versions, there are several name-brand statin medications on the market today, including Lipitor, Crestor, Mevacor, Zocor and Pravachol. Different prescription levels may vary from 5 mg to 80 mg depending on individual circumstances.
How Statins Work
Statins work by blocking substances required by the body to make cholesterol. They also slow the formation of plaque in the arteries and may even help the body reabsorb the existing cholesterol that has built up in plaque on the artery walls. These functions of the medication are useful for preventing blockages in the blood vessels from worsening. Due to this capability, statins may help prevent heart attacks as well.
Side Effects Of Statins VS The Benefits
There are several significant benefits to taking statins. For those who have high cholesterol levels, especially those who have already tried the recommended lifestyle changes with no results, statins can help get their cholesterol to a healthy level, remove plaques that have built up on their artery walls and lower their risk of heart attack.
However, there are also a few side effects of statins that need to be considered. First, there are some less serious side effects such as nausea, diarrhea and constipation. Many people who take these drugs also experience muscle and joint aches.
There are also a few potentially serious side effects of taking statins, including:
- Liver damage
- High blood sugar
- Type 2 diabetes
- Muscle problems, such as statin myopathy or rhabdomyolysis
- Neurological side effects, such as memory loss or Lou Gehrig’s disease
The risk for these more serious side effects is quite small and may be slightly increased if a person is prescribed a higher dosage. However, it’s still important to consider them before beginning a statin regimen, particularly since many people stay on this medication indefinitely once they start taking it.
Required Lifestyle Changes
Although they aren’t a part of the side effects of statins, there are certain lifestyle changes that need to be considered. Those who are prescribed a statin will also be required to make some lifestyle changes in order to have any significant results when it comes to lowering their cholesterol. Those changes may include:
- Quitting smoking
- Managing stress
- Exercising for at 30 minutes most days on the week
- Eating a healthy diet that is low in cholesterol, salt and fat
Another factor that individuals must consider is the fact that statins themselves are a lifelong commitment. Even if the statins are successful in lowering a person’s cholesterol to a healthy level, he will still need to be taken daily to make sure those cholesterol levels don’t go back up. This applies to most patients who decide to start taking statins. However, those who have major lifestyle changes after they start taking this medication, such as losing a lot of weight or making major changes to their diet, may be able to stop taking statins once their cholesterol has reached healthy levels.
Choosing to get a statin prescription could be a potentially life-changing decision for many individuals. These drugs can be extremely effective at lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart attack. However, there are several factors which need to be considered, including the need to make significant lifestyle changes and the potential side effects.
Talk to your doctor about all of these issues before you decide to start taking this medication. In many cases, your doctor may advise you to attempt making the recommended lifestyle changes listed above (if you haven’t already) before you start taking a medication like statins that you may need to stay on indefinitely.