By Linda Carroll
(Reuters Health) – With several small studies suggesting that the widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs, statins, might be linked to memory loss in seniors, patients were understandably concerned. But a large new study finds no link between memory loss and the drugs.
In fact, the six-yearlong study of more than 1,000 patients found the drugs appeared to protect cognition in patients with heart disease, researchers reported in the Journal of the America College of Cardiology.
“We could find no detrimental effect of statin medications on memory or global cognition over six years in older people, where memory had been comprehensively measured using five different kinds of memory tests,” said study leader Katherine Samaras of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.
Patients had been worried about statins for a number of reasons, Samaras said in an email. First, there had been a number of anecdotal reports suggesting statins might cause memory problems.
“Second, based on those reports the (Food and Drug Administration) requires a black box warning stating statins can cause memory loss,” Samaras said. “Third, the media have promoted fear in the community and the belief that statins cause memory loss – however, the evidence doesn’t stack up to support that belief.”
To analyze statins’ possible impact on cognition, Samaras and her colleagues turned to the Sydney Memory and Aging Study, which has been following 1,037 seniors who were aged 70 to 90 at the start of the study and were not showing signs of dementia.
During a six year period, participants in the MAS were evaluated for both mental and physical health every two years on four occasions. At each evaluation, the researchers assessed statin use by the participants and grouped them with respect to that use.
Participants were also offered brain scans as part of their cognitive evaluation. Ultimately, 529 signed on to be scanned at baseline, while 408 had a repeat scan two years into the study.
After accounting for dementia risk factors, the researchers found no difference over the six years between statin users and non-users in terms of cognitive skills. What’s more, participants with heart disease who took statins saw slower cognitive decline than those who did not use the drugs.
“Vascular disease is a major contributor to dementia as we age,” Samaras said. “Addressing the factors that promote vascular disease should prevent decline in cognition. In people with heart disease, this includes controlling blood fat levels – by addressing obesity, diet and, when necessary, statin medications – optimizing blood pressure and controlling diabetes when present.”
This is a “very important study,” said Dr. Robert Rosenson, director of cardiometabolic disorders at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “I am very pleased to see these results because of the robustness of the design and the quality of the study.”
The study is strong because of its size as well as its being “prospective with serial measurements made with validated measures of cognitive impairment,” Rosenson said.
Rosenson hopes the new findings will counter some of the misinformation circulating on the internet and other places.
“Case reports and small studies have tainted the public’s perception regarding the safety of statin therapy,” he said. “There are a lot of groups and some physicians who feel statins are harmful. They are ignoring the incredible database showing statins improve survival and reduce heart attacks, stroke and hospitalizations.”