With heart disease the single leading cause of death in America and stroke the third leading cause, the use of statins offers many patients viable treatment and prevention options not previously available.
Controlling your cholesterol level is an important factor in maintaining good health. Cholesterol contributes to heart disease, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks. The World Health Organization estimates that almost 20 percent of all strokes and over 50 percent of all heart attacks can be linked to high cholesterol. But despite the very best efforts at healthy eating and regular exercise, people with a genetic predisposition have bodies that make too much cholesterol no matter what they eat. Certainly, a healthy diet helps, but taking a statin turns down the body’s ability to make new cholesterol.
Statins are a class of drugs prescribed to lower blood cholesterol levels. These drugs block the action of a chemical in the liver that is necessary for making cholesterol. Cholesterol is important for metabolizing fat soluble vitamins like A, D, and E, helping manufacture bile, which helps digest fats. It is also critical for building and maintaining cell membranes. Too much cholesterol in your blood can clog arteries, causing them to narrow or in the most severe cases, blocking them. This can lead to heart attacks and stroke. In some instances, statins can also help the body reabsorb the problematic plaque that has built up on the arteries, thereby preventing further blockage and reducing the chance of a heart attack.
There are many different brands of cholesterol medication, but as yet there is no convincing evidence that any one medication is better than another. Some of the well known medications currently prescribed include Lipitor (atovastatin), Zocor (simivvastatin) and Mevacor (lovastatin). Generic versions, which are less costly, also are available for prescription and may be appropriate in certain situations.
Are statins right for you? When prescribing a statin, physicians consider other risk factors including: family history of high cholesterol or heart disease; degree of activity in your lifestyle; blood pressure; age—55 or older for men, 60 or older for women; general health condition; diabetes; weight; smoking; and narrowing of the arteries in the neck, arms or legs.
If it is determined that statins are a good option for you, a specific dose will be prescribed. Depending on the severity of your high cholesterol, the dose and brand can vary. Once you begin taking a statin, you may need to continue taking it indefinitely. Some people make significant lifestyle changes, lowering their cholesterol enough to go off statins if their doctor advises it.
There can be side effects and risks that come with taking statins as with any prescription drug. Together we will weigh the risks along with the anticipated benefits from taking statins. Common side effects include muscle and joint pain, nausea, diarrhea and constipation. Some people can tolerate statins well, and even those who experience some of the side effects may see them go away over time as their bodies adjust to the medication. Please consult with our office or your pharmacist on whether or not statins may adversely interact with any of your other medications.
It is wise to be aware that a more potentially severe side effect includes liver damage. Statins work by interfering with the production of cholesterol in your liver. As a result, statin use may cause an increase in liver enzymes. We strongly advise having a blood test several weeks after beginning this drug to check liver function, and then periodic blood tests to continue monitoring liver enzymes. If an increase in liver enzymes becomes severe, patients may need to discontinue statin use because this can result in permanent liver damage. Keep our office apprised of any unusual or persistent pain that you may experience if you start taking statins.
Research continues into the impact of statins on our bodies. Some investigation has already shown other benefits beyond lowering cholesterol, including their anti-inflammatory abilities that stabilize the lining of the blood vessels. This could contribute to lower blood pressure and reduced risk of blood clots. Very importantly, statins apparently decrease the potential rupture of plaque on the blood vessel linings, which is one of the most common causes of stroke and heart attack.
There is also early indication that statins may help prevent diseases not related to the heart, including reduced risk of arthritis and bone fractures, some forms of cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and kidney disease.
Statins hold great potential for improving the health of people with chronic high cholesterol who are at risk for increased incidences of heart attack and stroke. If you would like to discuss whether this medication option is a good one for you, please call our office to make an appointment.