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Statin risks vs. benefits: Doctor discusses side effects

Statin risks vs. benefits: Doctor discusses side effects

One-quarter of Americans over 40 take statin drugs to lower cholesterol, but they're not for everybody. Channel 3 asked a cardiologist about the risks versus the benefits.

Statins are widely prescribed, but they are not without side effects.

Dr. James Williams at Sacred Heart Hospital described the most common ones, saying, "Muscle pains and sometimes muscle weakness are at the top of the list of proven, potential statin side effects."

Dr. Williams said whether you should take them depends in part on how many risk factors you have. If there are several, he believes a statin is a good choice.

He said, "Diabetic, smoker, high blood pressure, family history, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, genetics, etcetera, might as well start preventive therapy, it's just a matter of time."

The tricky group is people with just a couple of risk factors, and no known evidence of hardening of the arteries. He calls them the "medium risk group."

Major medical associations differ on whether that group should be prescribed statins for prevention.

Dr. Williams said people rarely have to stop taking the drugs because of side effects, but serious reactions are possible. About five people in 1,000 will develop diabetes as a result of taking statins.

"Occasionally there's a patient whose memory is messed up and they stop the drug and they're better, and they start it back and they get it again; it seems to be very uncommon," he said.

Dr. Williams's recommendation for what he calls that "medium risk group" is a test to determine if they have plaque buildup in their arteries. It's called a coronary calcium score. It's relatively inexpensive, and he said it's the best predictor of a heart attack that we have. Someone with a high score would be a patient for whom he would recommend a statin.

Dr. Williams said, "Definitely if you're developing significant hardening of the arteries, we need to lower your cholesterol."