If you’re taking pills to lower your cholesterol, you’re not alone. “Statins” – drugs that work by inhibiting a certain enzyme in the liver that produces cholesterol – are among the top three most prescribed medications in North America (1;2) with a healthcare price tag of close to $2 billion annually in Canada alone (3).
With names like atorvastatin (Lipitor®) and rosuvastatin (Crestor®) the drugs’ ultimate purpose is to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. They are generally “well tolerated,” meaning the majority of people don’t have problems taking them (4;5). And recent research suggested that statins may have another benefit: lowering the risk of dementia.
With the number of people with dementia already at an alarming high and predicted to double every 20 years (6), getting Alzheimer’s or a related disease has become one of our greatest health fears. A pill that wards off both heart disease and dementia would definitely be a “two-for-one” deal worth getting excited about!
But do statins really help to prevent dementia?
What the research tells us
Observational studies have produced mixed results: a few early studies reported a significant preventative benefit (7;8) but others since were much less encouraging. Large-scale randomized controlled trials are challenging for such a complex topic, but the authors of a recent systematic review found two, involving a total of 26,340 participants aged 40 to 82, almost half of them age 70 and over (9). They were given one of two different statins, monitored and assessed over a three to five year follow-up period, and compared with people in control groups who were given a placebo.
What did they find? Disappointingly, there was no evidence that statins have any effect in preventing cognitive decline or dementia (9).
If your doctor has prescribed statins, take them. And while you’re at it, take any advice offered about lifestyle changes including diet and exercise. The pills alone may not be a magic solution for avoiding dementia but maintaining a strong, healthy heart and body will always have benefits.