PHILADELPHIA — Based on the largest comprehensive systematic review to date, researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that available evidence does not support an association between statins and memory loss or dementia. The new study, a collaborative effort between faculty in Penn Medicine’s Preventive Cardiovascular Program, the Penn Memory Center, and the Penn Center for Evidence-Based Practice, will be published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
“Statins are prescribed to approximately 30 million people in the United States, and these numbers may increase as a result of the national cholesterol guidelines recently released,” said senior study author Emil deGoma, MD, assistant professor of Medicine and medical director of the Preventive Cardiovascular Program at Penn. “A wealth of data supports a benefit of these cholesterol-lowering medications among individuals at risk for cardiovascular disease in terms of a reduction in the risk of heart attack and stroke; however, potential side effects of statins are less well understood. In February 2012, largely based on anecdotal reports, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety statement warning patients of possible adverse cognitive effects associated with statin use. Many concerned patients have asked if there is a relationship between statins and memory problems. Their concerns, along with the FDA statement, prompted us to pursue a rigorous analysis of all available evidence to better answer the question – are statins associated with changes in cognition?”
The research team conducted a systematic review of the published literature and identified 57 statin studies reporting measures of cognitive function. Dr. deGoma and colleagues found no evidence of an increased risk of dementia with statin therapy. In fact, in cohort studies, statin users had a 13 percent lower risk of dementia, a 21 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and a 34 percent lower risk of mild cognitive impairment compared to people who did not take statins.
Most importantly, cognitive test scores were not adversely affected by statin treatment in randomized controlled trials. In these trials, roughly half of the study participants received statins and the other half received placebo. All study participants underwent formal testing of memory and other cognitive domains through tests such as the ability to recall a set of numbers. The analysis of 155 cognitive tests spanning eight categories of cognitive function, including 26 tests of memory, revealed no differences between study participants treated with statins and those provided placebo.
The research team additionally performed an analysis of the FDA post-marketing surveillance databases and found no difference in the frequency of cognitive adverse event reports between statins and two commonly prescribed cardiovascular medications that have not been associated with cognitive impairment, namely, clopidogrel and losartan.
“Overall, these findings are quite reassuring. I wouldn’t let concerns about adverse effects on cognition influence the decision to start a statin in patients suffering from atherosclerotic disease or at risk for cardiovascular disease. I also wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that statins are the culprit when an individual who is taking a statin describes forgetfulness. We may be doing more harm than good if we withhold or stop statins – medications proven to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke – due to fears that statins might possibly cause memory loss,” said Dr. deGoma.
The team acknowledges that while their analysis is reassuring, large, high-quality randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm their findings.
“For many of the cognitive outcomes that we examined, the identified studies were small, were at risk for bias, used varying diagnostic tests to assess cognitive domains, and did not include patients on high-dose statins, which is important given the increasing use of high-dose statins for secondary prevention,” noted study co-author Craig Umscheid, MD, MSCE, assistant professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and director of the Penn Center for Evidence-based Practice. “Thus, additional trials addressing these limitations would strengthen our conclusions. Despite this, the totality of the evidence does reassure us that there’s unlikely to be a significant link between statins and cognitive impairment.”
Additional Penn authors include Marisa Schoen, BA, Benjamin French, PhD, Matthew D. Mitchell, PhD, Steven E. Arnold, MD, and Daniel J. Rader, MD.
Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.
The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.
Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.