The question of whether statin medications can cause cognition problems has become a hot topic ever since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered changes on their labels in February 2012, warning about memory problems with short-term use. As a result, some patients have been reluctant to take statins even though the drugs play a key role in heart disease prevention.
Seeking more clarity on the issue based on the best available evidence, several researchers from the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease decided to do an extensive review of the literature. They conducted two different analyses involving a total of 41 different studies, which they narrowed down to 16 that had the most relevance.
The first analysis looked at the impact of short-term statin use and cognitive function, including memory, attention and problem-solving. Their other assessment focused on studies in which participants took statins for more than one year to see if there was any correlation with a later diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.
“We looked at high-quality, randomized controlled trials and prospective studies that included more than 23,000 men and women with no prior history of cognitive problems,” says Raoul Manalac, a co-primary author of the study. “The participants in those studies were followed for up to 25 years.”
What they found was that the drugs posed no threat to short-term memory. In fact, when statins were taken for more than one year, the risk of dementia was reduced by 29 percent.
“All medications, including statins, may cause side effects, and many patients take multiple medicines that could theoretically interact with each other and cause cognitive problems,” says Kristopher Swiger, a co-primary author of the study. “However, our systematic review and meta-analysis found no connection between short-term statin use and memory loss or other types of cognitive dysfunction. In fact, longer-term statin use was associated with protection from dementia.”
Senior study author Seth Martin is not surprised by the data about longer term use. “Because of their effect on arteries to reduce or stabilize plaque and prevent strokes, it makes sense that statins could be protective in the brain against vascular dementia. Medications such as statins that reduce plaque and inflammation in coronary arteries may also be having the same effect on blood vessels in the brain.”
Roger Blumenthal, director of the Ciccarone Center, calls the findings reassuring. “This very robust analysis of the best data available should allay the concerns.”
The study researchers did not receive any funding from industry, and the authors have no conflicts of interest.