Do Statins Cause Memory Loss?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Drugs and Health, Health Current Events, Supplements and Health

Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

Author: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

statins and diabetesDo statins cause memory loss?  They are at it again. The medical profession is telling us that yet another study shows that statins are safe, so almost everyone should be taking a statin drug. There is only one problem. That’s not what the study really showed.

Let’s start at the beginning. For people who have already had a heart attack it is pretty clear that statin drugs save lives. If stain drugs were only prescribed for people who have had a heart attack or were at high risk of having a heart attack, I would be a proponent of their use.

However, the guidelines developed by the pharmaceutical and medical industry recommend statin use for millions of Americans who have never had a heart attack and who are at low to moderate risk of ever having a heart attack. That is problematic.

As I documented in a recent “Health Tips From the Professor”  the benefits of statins are marginal at best in healthy people who have not yet had a heart attack.

In addition, statins have some significant side effects. For example, up to 5% of people taking statins develop muscle pain and weakness. For most people the muscle pain is merely an inconvenience, but in a small percentage of cases it can lead to serious complications.

More concerning are the required label warnings that statins can lead to memory loss, mental confusion, high blood sugar and type 2 diabetes. In fact, a recent study described in “Health Tips From the Professor” suggests that statins may increase diabetes risk by as much as 46%.

In other words, statins may not kill you, but they sure can make life miserable. For many people, the most troubling aspect of statin use is memory loss. One of the most terrifying aspects of aging is the thought that you might be able to keep your body healthy but lose your mind.

However, recent headlines have proclaimed that we can “forget” about statins causing memory loss (Pardon the pun. I couldn’t resist it). They claim that a recent study has shown that statins don’t actually cause memory loss. The problem is that is not exactly what the study showed. It is only the medical profession’s interpretation of what the study showed.

Why Might Statins Cause Memory Loss?

iron and brain developmentStatin drugs block cholesterol synthesis, and cholesterol is an integral part of the myelin sheath that coats our neurons. You can think of myelin as being like the plastic coating on an electrical wire. It is that plastic coating that allows the electrical current to travel from one end of the wire to the other without shorting out. Myelin plays essentially the same role for our neurons.

Because of the importance of cholesterol in maintaining the integrity of myelin, there was concern from the earliest days of statin development that it might adversely affect memory. Thus, multiple clinical studies have been performed to determine whether statin use adversely affects memory.

Unfortunately, the previous clinical studies have been inclusive. Some suggested that statins cause memory loss. Others found no correlation between statin use and memory loss. A few actually suggested that statins improved memory. There are a number of reasons why the previous studies came to different conclusions including use of different statin drugs, different duration of the studies, and differences in how memory was measured.

Do Statins Cause Memory Loss?

blood pressure medicationsThis study (Strom et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.2092) differed from previous studies in that:

  • It focused on short term memory loss, and
  • It also included a group of patients who were using non-statin cholesterol lowering drugs.

The study drew on patient data from the online Health Improvement Network database collected from general practitioners offices throughout England between July 7, 2013 and January 15, 2015. The study compared 482,543 statin users with 482,543 matched controls using no cholesterol lowering medication and 26,484 patients using non-statin cholesterol lowering medications. The average age of the participants in this study was 63. Memory loss within the first 30 days after initiation of drug therapy was assessed by scanning the medical records in the database for codes related to memory loss.

The results were stunning!

  • Stain drug users were 4-fold more likely to experience short term memory loss within the first 30 days than non-users, and the likelihood of memory loss was dose dependent.
  • The users of non-statin cholesterol lowering drugs were also 4-fold more likely to experience short term memory loss within the first 30 days than non-users.
  • As you might expect there was no significant difference in memory loss between users of the statin and non-statin cholesterol lowering drugs.

How Were The Results Interpreted?

The results seemed to be pretty clear cut, but it was a somewhat misleading interpretation of the results that was widely publicized. The authors of the article correctly pointed out that there are two possible interpretations of these results. Either…

  • All cholesterol lowering drugs cause acute memory loss….or
  • The association of memory loss with cholesterol lowering drugs is the result of something called “detection bias”.

Let me explain. Some memory loss is fairly common for people in their 60s and beyond. The term “detection bias” simply means that the patients might have been more acutely aware of memory loss because they were monitoring themselves for side effects to the drug they just started taking.

Of course, the medical profession is so confident in the benefits of statins that they focused on the second interpretation, and that is the one that you heard about in all of the press releases about this study. If you believe that the self-reported memory loss in this study was entirely due to detection bias, then the most logical interpretation of the study is that statin drugs really don’t cause memory loss.

However, I consider the first interpretation to be the most likely of the two. If use of cholesterol lowering drugs were associated with a 25% or 50% increase in memory loss, detection bias could have been a credible interpretation of the data. However, a 4-fold increase in memory loss is hard to ascribe to detection bias alone.

Furthermore, the first explanation is fully consistent with what we know about myelin. Because of the importance of cholesterol in maintaining the integrity of the myelin sheath, it is logical that any drug that dramatically lowers cholesterol levels could have an adverse effect on cognitive function.

Are There Other Options Besides Statin Drugs?

Because of the marginal benefits in healthy people and the multiple side effects, some experts are starting to step up and say that statins may be overprescribed. For example, Dr. Roger Blumenthal, MD, a professor and director of the Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center at Johns Hopkins recently said: “Statin therapy should not be approached like diet and exercise as a broadly based solution for preventing coronary heart disease. These are lifelong medications with potential, although rare, side effects, and physicians should only consider their use for those patients at greatest risk…”

So, what are the alternatives?

#1: Lower Cholesterol Naturally With Some TLC

healthy livingsThe National Heart Lung & Blood Institute recommends that something called Therapeutic Lifestyle Change or TLC should always be tried first for patients with elevated cholesterol, and that statins only be used if the lifestyle approach fails – a message that seems to have gotten lost in the translation in many doctor’s offices. The TLC recommendations are:

  • Add 2 grams per day of plant stanols and sterols to your diet. In most cases some that will require some degree of supplementation.
  • Eat less than 7 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat
  • Eat less than 200 mg a day of cholesterol
  • Make sure that you get 10-25 grams per day of soluble fiber.
  • Get only 25–35 percent of daily calories from total fat (this includes saturated fat calories)
  • Consume only enough calories to reach or maintain a healthy weight
  • In addition, you should get at least 30 minutes of a moderate intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, on most, and preferably all, days of the week.

There is ample evidence that implementation of these lifestyle changes will reduce cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke without any side effects. The reduction in cholesterol levels is more modest than what can be achieved with cholesterol lowering medications, but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the medical profession is being too aggressive in reducing cholesterol levels with drug therapy.

If you are a bit overwhelmed by the TLC recommendations, there is good news. Even one or two of the lifestyle changes mentioned above can substantially reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. For example, in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor,apple a day keeps statins away, I reported on a study claiming that simply eating one apple a day would be just as effective as statins at reducing cardiovascular deaths.

#2: Reduce Other Risk Factors Associated with Heart Disease

Elevated cholesterol is not the only risk factor associated with heart disease. In fact, many experts feel that it isn’t even the most important risk factor. High blood pressure, high triglycerides, inflammation and damage to the endothelial lining of our arteries are other important risk factors for heart disease. If you are leery about using statins to reduce your cholesterol levels, you might want to explore other natural approaches to reducing heart disease risk. For example:

  • Nitrate from foods such as beetroot and spinach reduce blood pressure and improve endothelial health. This is also a topic I have covered in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” Nitric Oxide Benefits Side Effects.
  • Resveratrol and related polyphenols reduce inflammation and improve endothelial health.

I could go on, but you get the point. There are other natural approaches for reducing heart attack risk. Statins and other cholesterol lowering drugs are not the only game in town.

     Red Yeast Rice Yeast Rice Side Effects?

red yeast rice side effectsHowever, just because a supplement is natural doesn’t necessarily mean that it is either safe or effective. Red yeast rice is a perfect example. Many people think of red yeast rice as a natural way to reduce cholesterol levels. They believe red yeast rice side effects are non-existent. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The active ingredients in red yeast rice are a class of compounds called monacolins, which are close analogs of the statin drugs. In fact, the most abundant monacolin, monacolin K, is identical to the statin drug lovastatin.

That destroys one myth. If a red yeast rice product contains as much monacolin K as a lovastatin pill, it would have the same benefits and the same side effects.

It only gets worse! In fact, you have no way of knowing how much monacolin K is in your red yeast rice supplement. Because lovastatin is a drug the manufacturers are caught in a Catch-22 situation. If the manufacturers were to actually standardize or disclose the levels of monacolin K in their product, the FDA would consider it an unapproved drug.

When manufacturers don’t standardize their active ingredients bad things happen. How bad, you might ask? A recent study analyzed the concentration of active ingredients in 12 commercially available red yeast rice supplements (R. Y. Gordon et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 170: 1722-1727, 2015). The results were appalling:

  • Total monacolins in the supplements ranged from 0.31 to 11.15 mg/capsule.
  • Monacolin K (lovastatin) ranged from 0.10 to 10.09 mg/capsule.
  • To put that into perspective therapeutic doses of lovastatin range from 10 to 80 mg/day.

It gets even worse! The study also measured levels of a toxin called citrinin that is produced by a fungus and is potentially toxic to the kidneys. This is not a toxin that you would find in a pharmaceutical product like lovastatin, but it was present in high levels in one third of the red yeast rice formulations tested.

To sum it all up, if you were to go out and purchase a red yeast rice supplement.

  • You might get a batch with no active ingredients. It wouldn’t have any of the side effects of a statin drug, but it wouldn’t have any efficacy either.
  • You might get a batch that would have the same efficacy and the same side effects as a low dose statin drug.
  • You would have a 33% chance of getting a batch that was contaminated with a toxin that you would never find in a statin drug.

I don’t know about you, but after reading that study I have no desire to ever try a red yeast rice supplement.

Do statins cause memory loss?

 

 

The Bottom Line

  • For people who have already had a heart attack statin drugs are clearly beneficial. They save lives.
  • If you haven’t already had a heart attack and your doctor prescribes a statin, you may want to have a serious discussion with your doctor about alternative approaches for reducing heart attack risk. You may even want to seek a second opinion from a doctor with a more holistic orientation. Recent research suggests that statin drugs:
  • Are of marginal efficacy in low to moderate risk individuals who have not suffered a heart attack.
  • Can cause muscle pain and weakness, which can lead to serious illness in a small percentage of the cases.
  • May increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 46%.
  • May cause memory loss and mental confusion.
  • A recent study showed that both statin and non-statin cholesterol lowering drugs caused 4-fold greater short term memory loss in older adults compared to matched patients who were not taking statin medications.
  • The medical profession has chosen to interpret this study as showing that statin drugs don’t cause short term memory loss, and that is the interpretation that has been widely reported in the press. I feel that the more logical interpretation of the data is that both statin and non-statin cholesterol lowering drugs cause short term memory loss.
  • Fortunately, there are natural approaches for reducing cholesterol levels and heart disease risk without any side effects. For example, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute recommends a natural approach called Therapeutic Lifestyle Change or TLC .
  • There are also natural approaches for reducing other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and inflammation. These include things like omega-3 fatty acids, nitrate from vegetables like beetroots and spinach, and polyphenols like resveratrol just to name a few.
  • However, natural is not always better. Red yeast rice, for example, is neither safe nor effective. For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Marsha Reiner

    |

    My doctor put me on a stating AGAIN ! I quit again! Now he put me on a drug for triglycerides which I will not fill the prescription!

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Marsha,
      I do not recommend ignoring a doctor’s recommendations entirely. Instead, you might wish to have a discussion with your doctor and ask about natural approaches you could take. If your doctor is unwilling to have that discussion, you might want to ask for a second opinion or search for another doctor.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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