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Do I Need a Statin for High Cholesterol?

Statins are powerful drugs that can help lower cholesterol and your risk of heart disease, but they aren't for everyone.

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Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, losing weight and quitting smoking are recommended for most people with high cholesterol. In addition, medications also may be recommended.  

If you're not reaching your cholesterol goals with lifestyle changes alone, your doctor may want to talk with you about statins. Statins are a type of drug that can help lower your cholesterol. The drugs work by slowing down the liver’s production of cholesterol.

Previously, statins were only for people with dangerously high cholesterol. Now, in addition to people who have high cholesterol levels, statins also are often given to people who have moderately high cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease. Your doctor will consider your cholesterol levels, family history, race, gender, whether you smoke, and other factors in deciding if statins may be right for you.

Side effects of statins

Many people do well taking statins. Keep in mind, statins do have side effects. Some of the side effects often will go away as your body adjusts to the medicine. Some of the less serious side effects may include nausea, muscle and joint aches, diarrhea and constipation. Always talk to your doctor about these symptoms.

Potentially serious side effects in the use of statins are monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Here are highlights from the FDA’s latest updates on the safety of statins:

  • Liver injury is rare. Before you start a statin drug, your doctor may order liver function tests for baseline information. Your doctor will review the symptoms you should watch for and report.
  • Forgetfulness, memory loss and confusion or fuzzy and unfocused thinking may occur in some people who take statins. Report all changes to your doctor.
  • Statin users may have a small increased risk of raised blood sugar levels and developing type 2 diabetes. Talk to your doctor about your concerns.
  • Some drugs can interact with statins and increase the risk of muscle damage. If you notice any new muscle weakness or pain when taking statins, tell your doctor. Make sure your doctor knows all the medicines or supplements you are taking.

Lifestyle is key

Even if you take statins, lifestyle changes are important in lowering cholesterol. Healthy habits include a low-fat diet, regular physical activity and weight management. Always check with your doctor first before you increase your activity level.

By Theresa Radde-Stepaniak, RN, Contributing Writer

Stone NJ, Robinson J, Lichtenstein AH, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the treatment of blood cholesterol to reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular risk in adults: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association task force on practice guidelines. Circulation. 2014;129:S102-S138. Accessed: December 8, 2015.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA expands advice on statin risks. Accessed: December 8, 2015.
American Heart Association. Drug therapy for cholesterol. Accessed: December 8, 2015.
2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk. Accessed: December 8, 2015.

Last Updated: December 9, 2015