Do Statins Decrease Or Increase The Risk Of Parkinson’s Disease?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Drugs and Health, Issues

The Fine Print Behind The Misleading Headline

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 Human NeuronsI hadn’t paid much attention to the headlines saying “Statin Use May Decrease Parkinson’s Risk” until the other day when I happened to glance a couple of lines below the headline and spotted a statement saying “Study Shows That Discontinuation of Statin Therapy Increases Risk of Parkinson’s”.

 I immediately said to myself “That’s bizarre. There is a total disconnect between the headlines and the study.” If you really wanted to determine whether statin use reduced the risk of Parkinson’s, you would compare the incidence of Parkinson’s disease in a group of statin users and a matched group who did not use statins.

It turns out those studies have been done, and they were inconclusive – some studies showed a slight increase in Parkinson’s in statin users, some showed a slight decrease, and most showed no correlation between statin use and Parkinson’s.

In that context, this study could equally well have been interpreted as suggesting that statin use increased the risk of Parkinson’s, but somehow none of the headlines mentioned that possibility.

Are Both Possibilities Plausible?

 Let’s look at each possibility in detail. The reasoning is complex, but let me try to walk you through it.

 Could Statins Decrease The Risk Of Parkinson’s

 Parkinson’s is caused by the progressive degeneration of the brain neurons that produce a chemical messenger called dopamine that controls muscle movement. However, the causes of nerve degeneration in Parkinson’s patients are largely unknown.

Genetics may play a small role. Environmental toxins may play a role. But most experts feel that Parkinson’s patients produce an excess of free radicals, and it is the oxidative damage caused by those free radicals that results in the loss of the ability of neurons to produce dopamine.

But even that is not the whole answer. The brain is normally able to use coenzyme Q10, which is very abundant in brain, and other antioxidants to destroy free radicals before they damage brain neurons. Somehow in Parkinson’s patients free radical production and antioxidant production have gotten out of balance.

Advocates of the theory that statins may decrease the risk of Parkinson’s, point out that statins decrease oxidative damage. So if a person was predisposed to developing Parkinson’s and oxidative damage is a major cause of Parkinson’s, it is theoretically possible that statins could slow the progression to Parkinson’s while they were taking the drug. Of course, once they stopped taking the drug the oxidative damage to dopamine-producing neurons would resume and Parkinson’s would eventually develop.

In this model- Let’s call it Model A:

1)     Oxidative damage of dopamine-producing neurons was caused by some unspecified external agent.

2)     Statins protected the neurons from oxidative damage while they were being used.

3)     Once the statin drugs were discontinued oxidative damage resumed and the risk of developing Parkinson’s increased.

This is the model favored by the authors and repeated in all of the headlines you saw.

Could Statins Increase The Risk Of Parkinson’s?

Statins also interfere with the synthesis of cholesterol and coenzyme Q10, and these are both absolutely essential for brain function. Let’s start with cholesterol:

  •  20% of the body’s membrane cholesterol is found in the myelin sheath that coats the brain’s neurons (You can think of the myelin sheath as analogous to the plastic coating that insulates an electrical wire).
  • Cholesterol can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, which means that the brain cannot utilize cholesterol from the bloodstream . It has to make its own cholesterol.

As for coenzyme Q10:

  • It is not only a powerful antioxidant. It is also absolutely essential for cellular energy production.
  • The brain has tremendous energy requirements. The brain accounts for 20% of the energy utilization of our body. Neurons burn 2 times more energy than other cells in our body.

For both of these reasons, many experts have cautioned that statin drugs have the potential to cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.  In this model – Lets call it model B:

1)     The statin drugs themselves are damaging the dopamine-producing neurons by inhibiting cholesterol and coenzyme Q10 synthesis in the brain.

2)     The antioxidant effects of the statin drugs were masking the damage caused by the statins while the drugs were being used.

3)     Once the statin drugs were discontinued the underlying damage was unmasked and the patients quickly developed Parkinson’s.

What Did The Study Actually Show?

The study (Lee et al, Neurology, 81: 410-416, 2013) looked at 43,810 statin users on the island of Taiwan. The Taiwanese Health System keeps extensive records of prescription use and health conditions of everyone on the island. It also requires that statin use be discontinued as soon as the patient reach their target of < 100 mg/dL LDL cholesterol, so they had the perfect population base to study what happens when you discontinue statin therapy.

The results were:

  • The patients who discontinued statin therapy were 42% less likely to develop Parkinson’s that those who continued on statin therapy. That result is consistent with both models A & B.
  • The increased risk of developing Parkinson’s when the drug was discontinued was only seen for the statin drugs like simvastatin and atorvastatin that are able to cross the blood brain barrier. That result is actually a bit more consistent with model B (Remember that the brain has to be able to make its own cholesterol and statins block cholesterol production).
  • When the study compared people using statin drugs to those not using statin drugs there was no significant difference in the prevalence of Parkinson’s – even for those statin drugs that cross the blood brain barrier. That means that merely being on a statin drug did not influence the risk of developing Parkinson’s. It was only when patients were on statin drugs for a period of time and were subsequently taken off statins that the risk of developing Parkinson’s was affected – and the effect was to increase risk! In the context of the first two findings, that result is also a bit more consistent with model B.

The Bottom Line:

If I were writing one of those medical blogs, I would have probably have gone with the party line and told you that statins decrease your risk of developing Parkinson’s. And if I were one of those health bloggers who never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I’d probably be scaring you with headlines saying that statins increase your risk of Parkinson’s.

But, I’m a scientist. I actually read the article, and I tell it to you like it is. Here’s your bottom line.

1)     Ignore the headlines. The study they are talking about can’t distinguish between statins increasing or decreasing the risk of Parkinson’s. Don’t let anyone tell you that reducing the risk of Parkinson’s is a side benefit of statin therapy. That simply has not been proven.

2)     The study does clearly show that discontinuing the statin drugs simvastatin and atorvastatin is associated with increased risk of developing Parkinson’s. That’s a big red flag for me, because 53% of patients discontinue statin therapy because of side effects, cost or other reasons.

3)     However, statin drugs do save lives, especially for people who have already had a heart attack, so talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of statin drugs, and which statin drugs are best for you.

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 (8)

  • Angela

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    My husband has been on statins for more years than I can remember. His health has deteriorated greatly over the last 5 years and he has just been diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease. He has stopped the statins 3 weeks ago and there has been an improvement in his disposition and mental capacity. he has stopped hallucination/hearing things and and is carrying himself more balanced. He is happier in himself and not the grumpy old man he had become. He is smiling brightly. His slight tremor has now virtually disappeared. He is still very stiff. I believed it was the statins that were making him ill and now am more convinced of it than ever. It was because of what I could see that I looked for evidence on the www. There was certainly no case of ceasing the statins causing the Parkinsons.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Angela,
      Sometimes I am too subtle for my own good. I was raising the hypothesis that statins could cause neurological damage that increased the risk of Parkinsons, but that the neurological damage was masked by the anti-inflammatory effects of statins. Of course, once someone has been on the statins long enough it may no longer be possible to mask the symptoms. That is just a hypothesis at this point, but it would explain your husband’s situation.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Rene Cote

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    After having an operation (2 stents), I received a prescription for Statins (Crestor).

    After 2 days, I started to having pain while working, back pain also, and after 5 days I could hardly walk correctly. My doctor told me I had to excercise more.
    After reading side effects on internet, I talk about it with my neighbor whose a phamacist. She told me to stop the statin treatment immediatly. After 3 days, I was back to normal.

    My father who was taking statins for 5 years was diagnosed Alzeimer. He could hardly move and was confused once in a while.
    My mother and I decided to stop my father’s statin treatment.
    After 2 weeks, my father started suddendly to walk with no help and was much much less confused. After a visit to his doctor, the Alzeimer diagnostic was removed, and replaced with a Parkinson diagnostic, because he was shajing a bit from his right hand.

    My non-scientific observation is that after being attacked by statins, their must be a period for muscles to get completly back to normal.

    I am sorry but I think you don’t follow your own recommandations: where is it proven that “statin drugs do save lives”?

    Oh yes, in studies (made by who?)

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

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      Dear Rene,

      In clinical studies with patients who have already had one heart attack or otherwise have serious heart disease, statins significantly decrease the risk of a second heart attack. That has been shown in numerous clinical trials. As I pointed out, it has not been possible to prove that statins reduce heart attack risk significantly in people who have not had a heart attack. And the kind of side effects that you have described are real, and can be quite serious. This aspect of statin therapy has often been downplayed in the medical community.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Randy Ice PT, CCS

    |

    Since oxidative stress of the dopamine producing brain cells appears to be the most likely cause of Parkinson’s, and since statins can cause or maybe protect against it, it would seem a more logical approach to prevention would be to take CoQ10 and other fat soluble antioxidants like Vitamin E and R-Alpha Lipoic Acid. This offers the best defense along with a good diet and exercise while avoiding a whole host of statin “side effects” aka unwanted direct effects, which are approaching 300 now.

    I am not convinced that statins have cardioprotective effects in secondary prevention. The original 4S study showed a 0.8%/year absolute risk reduction in the simvastatin group relative to placebo and that was in a cherry picked population of 8888 men screened from 21,000 men with prior heart attacks. So why were over 12,000 men rejected from this study.?Why was the study population so large? Because the researchers knew going in that the effects of this drug would be minimal, therefore to achieve “statistical significance” they had to rig the study with large numbers of cherry picked men. There was no difference in strokes nor MI’s in either group. Studies of women with coronary disease have shown no benefit with statins in primary ore secondary prevention.

    The absolute risk reduction in secondary prevention is so ridiculously miniscule that the long term risks of CHF, Type II diabetes, muscle and joint pain, cataracts, peripheral neuropathy, dementia, etc etc that I see in my patients very frequently make the use of these expensive drugs simply unacceptable

    This is a scam of unbelievable proportions maiming and killing millions of people around the world all in the name of “cholesterol reduction” which has no effect on atherosclerosis.

    I have directed a cardiopulmonary rehab program for the last 42 years and I see first hand the damage statins do as well as patients who have been on them for years and have another cardiac event due to progression of disease.. That is also why they have no effect on primary prevention. They Lipid Hypothesis of atherosclerosis has been dis proven and should discarded.

    Unfortunately there are $29 billion reasons why this won’t happen anytime soon.

    Reply

  • Prof A N Agrawal

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    I am going to stop Atorvastatin 20 which my wife , a pt of CKD on hemodialysis has been taking for last 10years and also a pt of PD on Levodopa/ carbidopa for last 3 years, and monitor the for 10-20 days whether PD symptoms improve.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      I always recommend checking with your physician first before going off medications. I report on clinical studies, which describe what happens for most people. However, each of us are unique and only our physicians know the pluses and minuses about changing medications for us as individuals. Tell you physician your concerns about PD and enlist their help in monitoring how your wife responds to going off or reducing Atorvastatin.

      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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