Statins Use: Side Effects are Rare


If your doctor has placed you on statin therapy to reduce your cholesterol, you can rest easy — the benefits outweigh the risks.

According to new research from the American Heart Association, statins — the popular class of cholesterol-lowering drugs used widely to prevent recurrent heart disease or stroke as well as risk for having a first cardiac or stroke event — appear to cause few side effects. The news is published in the AHA’s Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

This was the largest meta-analysis conducted on statin side effects to date. Researchers reviewed data from 135 previous drug studies to evaluate the safety of the seven statins on the market. They concluded that, “as a class, adverse events associated with statin therapy are not common.”

Researchers reviewed trials published between 1985 and early 2013, which included almost 250,000 patients. On average, the trials lasted a bit longer than a year. Some compared one statin to another, while others compared a statin to an inactive placebo, which is often called a sugar pill or dummy pill.

Simvastatin and pravastatin – Zocor and Pravachol — have the fewest side effects

Researchers noted that simvastatin and pravastatin, the generic names of the brands Zocor and Pravachol, were found to have the best safety profile in the class. This is particularly true when patients were prescribed low to moderate doses of those statins, says Huseyin Naci, M.H.S., the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science and research fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine.

Statins may only slightly increase diabetes risk

Researchers also noted a nine percent increased risk of diabetes among statin users. But according to a previous landmark study, 250 patients need to be treated with a statin for one case of diabetes to be diagnosed.

“I am concerned that patients may misunderstand this small increase in risk and stop adhering to their medications,” Naci says.

The proven ability of statins to significantly cut the rate of death and hospitalization in patients who have heart disease outweighs the “small increase in diabetes risk,” he says.

Statins not a cancer risk

The study also found that statins were not linked to an increase in cancer risk. However, the drugs were associated with a typically reversible increase in liver enzymes, which Naci says still resulted in a very low rate of actual liver toxicity in statin patients.

“Although the benefits of statins clearly outweigh risks at the population level, individualizing such benefits and risks is more difficult,” he says. “This brings into sharp focus the importance of identifying the individuals who stand to benefit the most from statin therapy.

“Although the risk of developing diabetes is low, what this risk would amount to over time is simply not known based on the existing evidence,” Naci says.

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