Do Statins Cause Dementia? Cardiology and Brain Experts Respond

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

This medication, commonly prescribed for the heart, has caused confusion for some patients. Here, heart and brain experts convey where they stand.

Statins rank as some of the most frequently prescribed medications in the United States—the Cleveland Clinic says 92 million U.S. adults take statins to lower their risk of cardiovascular complications, especially those with high cholesterol, diabetes, or existing heart conditions. Statins prevent cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes, by inhibiting a key enzyme the liver uses to produce cholesterol.

Rajesh Shah, MD is a board-certified interventional cardiologist and director of the Heart Attack Program at AdventHealth in Orlando. We spoke with Dr. Shah, who emphasized that statins are “a group of medications that have had exhaustive scientific evaluation over a generation to determine that they do have mortality benefit from a cardiovascular standpoint.”

However, in recent years, emerging research and reports have suggested a potential link between statin use and cognitive changes. With projections indicating that the incidence of dementia could triple by 2050, it’s important to gain a deeper scientific understanding of the effects of statins beyond heart health.

Ahead, we explore what researchers and experts have to say about whether statins cause dementia, with some evidence that shows they may actually reduce the risk.

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Do statins cause memory problems?

Statins’ primary role is to manage cholesterol, but their influence on the brain is complex due to the brain’s high cholesterol needs for normal function. Cholesterol is vital for creating cell membranes and producing certain hormones and vitamins in the brain.

Some statins can cross the blood-brain barrier, which raises questions about their impact on these critical processes: On the one hand, statins may protect the brain by improving blood flow, reducing inflammation, and lowering the risk of stroke. Stroke is a major risk factor for cognitive decline.

On the other hand, there are hypotheses that statins might interfere with the brain’s cholesterol metabolism, possibly affecting memory and cognitive functions.

However, the evidence is mixed and further research is needed to understand these interactions fully.

Do statins increase the risk of dementia?

Recent studies have explored whether statin therapy might elevate the risk of dementia, but Dr. Shah clarifies that “there has been no definite link.”

In fact, meta-analyses of observational studies suggest that statins could actually help reduce dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and mild cognitive impairment. Furthermore, a 2022 review by neuroscience researchers sought to address this question, but the answer remains complex due to numerous influencing factors such as age, sex, genetics, ethnicity, and medical conditions. These variables can obscure whether statins truly affect dementia risk.

Given their significant benefits, especially for coronary vascular disease patients, physicians continue to prescribe statins. Despite limited alternatives that offer similar mortality benefits, the therapeutic value of statins remains high.

The Food and Drug Administration notes on statin labels that some individuals may experience memory loss or confusion while on the medication. However, these side effects are reversible upon discontinuation. The Mayo Clinic reports that there is limited evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship, with most studies indicating that statins do not impact memory.

If you notice memory issues while on statins, consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your regimen. Depending on your situation, they may adjust your dosage or switch you to a different type of statin.

Statins are categorized as either lipophilic, dissolving in fats, or hydrophilic, dissolving in water. This distinction matters because some studies have linked lipophilic statins to brain-related side effects, although other research shows no cognitive differences between the two types. Your healthcare provider will help determine if an adjustment is necessary.

The takeaway

Despite ongoing discussions, based on current data, the consensus in the medical community strongly supports the benefits of statin therapy outweighing the potential risks. “I anticipate there will be continued research in this space,” says Dr. Shah. “Recommendations may change over time, but at this present time, statin therapy is a mainstay in the treatment of cardiac and vascular disease.”

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