Statin side effects make you want to pitch your pill bottle? Not so fast

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Study says continuing statins after adverse effects lowers risk of death

We’ve all been there: side effects that make you want to toss the prescription bottle. While it’s always important to talk to your doctor about stopping medications, a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine says continuing statin therapy to lower cholesterol even after a bad reaction may lower your risks of heart attack and death.

“Your health is a joint effort between you and your health care provider,” said Tracy Kramer, nurse practitioner at Providence Family Medicine Clinic-Lakeshore. “This study reinforces the importance of working together to look at all sides of a health issue to come to the best possible outcome,” she said. Providence is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

Researchers studied health records of over 28,000 patients who had an adverse reaction to statins. They found patients who continued taking the drug for 12 months despite having a bad reaction had a 10 to 20 percent lower risk of heart attack and death.

It’s true that information from patients’ medical records can’t determine whether the patients actually took the statins, say study authors. The study doesn’t prove cause and effect, but it opens the door for more discussion about the health risks and benefits of continuing the medication if you’ve had a bad reaction.

Who needs statins?

Statins are cholesterol-lowering medications that help reduce the level of fats in the blood. Too much cholesterol in your blood can cause plaque buildup in your arteries, putting you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.

“Statins help ramp down production of cholesterol and boost the liver’s ability to remove low-density lipoproteins (LDL),” Kramer said.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends people ages 40-75 should consider taking statins to prevent heart disease and stroke if they have at least one risk factor, such as:

  • High LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking habit
  • A 10 percent or greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next decade

Weighing the pros and cons

When looking at risks and benefits of a medicine, it’s important to strike a balance. According the study’s authors, even though statins reduce risks of heart attack and death in patients who are already at high risk for cardiovascular disease, unpleasant side effects from the medicine likely contribute to patients stopping the treatment – putting them at greater risk.

Kramer says possible side effects can include headache, flushing of the skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and muscle aches.

The good news is many of these symptoms can be alleviated, so talk to your doctor about a treatment plan.

Lifestyle is still important

Whether you take a statin or not, a healthy lifestyle is always important for overall health. To reduce heart disease risk, the American Heart Association says:

  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke
  • Eat a heart healthy diet. Focus on a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes.
  • Be physically active. Shoot for 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.