What You Need to Know About Statins

Statins are prescribed to lower cholesterol. Also called HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, statins are one class of many cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Statins and Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found throughout the body that is vital to the normal function of cells. Too much cholesterol can build up on the walls of arteries and may eventually clog the arteries and prevent the heart from getting the blood it needs. Because there are no warning symptoms of high cholesterol, it is important to have blood cholesterol levels checked at least once every four to six years for adults 20 years or older.

Taking a total blood (or serum) cholesterol test is a combination of measurements in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) for:

  • HDL (good) cholesterol (higher is better)
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol (lower is better)
  • Triglycerides (stored in fat cells and used as an energy source)

When total cholesterol is high, but there is no history of heart disease, doctors may recommend:

  • A program of reduced dietary saturated fat and cholesterol
  • Physical activity
  • Weight control
  • Quitting smoking

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

If cholesterol doesn’t lower with lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe a statin after evaluating cholesterol levels and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Diabetes or pre-diabetes
  • Lack of healthy diet
  • Physically inactive
  • Family history of heart disease

In recent years, doctors have backed off hard and fast number guidelines for acceptable cholesterol levels. Instead, they consider the spectrum of heart disease risk factors, of which total cholesterol level is one. A statin may be recommended even if cholesterol levels aren’t exceptionally high because the drugs have a track record for reducing heart attacks and strokes.

About Statins

Statins are the most recommended medications for treating cholesterol because they have shown the highest likelihood to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. Statin medications work in the liver to prevent cholesterol from forming, and therefore prevent the release of cholesterol into the blood. They can help:

  • Lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides
  • Raise good cholesterol (HDL)
  • Remove cholesterol that is currently in the blood

The drugs are typically well tolerated by most people, but some may experience side effects such as muscle and joint aches or digestive issues. The side effects vary by brand of medication, so you have options if one medication doesn’t work for you due to side effects.

Similarly, some statins may interact with other medications you are taking, or may interact with fresh grapefruit or grapefruit juice. Talking with your doctor about the characteristics and benefits of the different statin options will help you select the one that is best for your condition.

Other types of medications recommended for treating high cholesterol levels include:

  • Selective cholesterol absorption inhibitors – prevents cholesterol from being absorbed in the intestine
  • Resins (bile acid-binding drugs) – promotes disposal of cholesterol
  • Lipid-lowering therapies – affects the body’s production and use of fats

Talk with your doctor about options for your condition.

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