Cholesterol-lowering drugs may be good for your head as well as your heart. A new analysis by Johns Hopkins University shows taking statin medications to prevent heart attacks may also protect against dementia.
The findings, published online in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, are based on a systematic review of dozens of studies that the researchers said should offer "more clarity and reassurance" to patients and the doctors about the safety and benefits of statin medications.
Concerns that statins can cause cognition problems prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year to order new drug labels, warning that the widely prescribed medicines may cause memory problems with short-term statin use.
But the new Johns Hopkins review found that statins do not affect short-term memory or cognition and, when taken long term, reduce the risk of dementia 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," said researcher Kristopher Swiger, M.D. "However, our systematic review and meta-analysis of existing data 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."
For their study, the Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed 41 different studies involving more than 23,000 people.
Statins reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, particularly low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — the "bad" form of cholesterol that can build up as plaque inside blood vessels. The drugs have been shown to reduce coronary artery disease and stroke, as well as inflammation in blood vessels.
"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 dementia," said Seth Martin, M.D., a Pollin Cardiovascular Prevention Fellow with the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease and the study's senior author.
"Vascular dementia is caused by blockages in small blood vessels in the brain that prevent blood flow to certain areas. 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."
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