Mind and body have always been closely connected. It seems intuitive that what would be good for one should be good for the other. Exercise, a healthy diet, and a consistent sleep schedule are three prescriptions we’re all familiar with.
Recently, many in the health community thought they may have found another silver bullet: statins. Statins, which you may know by brand names like Crestor, Lipitor, or Zocor, are used to lower LDL cholesterol. Statins also have the added effect of reducing inflammation.
Early optimistic reports speculated that statins might not only improve cardiovascular health but also protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.1 The thinking was that two of the same red flags found in Alzheimer’s patients – high LDL cholesterol and inflammation – are treated by statins. In fact, people with high levels of LDL are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Why Statins Aren’t As Powerful
As We Once Thought
Unfortunately, new data shows that those reports may have been too good to be true. A number of studies now suggest that statins actually have no positive benefit to cognition in elderly individuals.
The first, a 2009 investigation by the Cochrane Collaboration,2 conclusively shows that statins shouldn’t be expected to provide any cognitive benefit. Researchers conducting the double-blind controlled study looked at over 26,000 patients at high risk of Alzheimer’s. They found that there was no statistical difference in the incidence of Alzheimer’s or other cognitive decline between the control group and those who took statins.
This longitudinal study, which took five years to conduct, is seen as the most convincing evidence to date that statins shouldn’t be used as a preventative measure against Alzheimer’s. Bernadette McGuinness, a senior clinical research fellow in geriatric medicine at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, called the Cochrane study the “gold-standard” for research on the link between statins and Alzheimer’s.3
Another study, this one conducted by Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, goes further in proving that statins do not provide any mental benefit.4 Their research questioned whether statins might operate as an enhancer of cognitive function among older people who are not prone to Alzheimer’s.
Again, no dice. The group of statin-takers performed no better in cognitive and memory tests than their control group counterparts. It seems that whether or not you’re prone to Alzheimer’s there isn’t much cognitive benefit to taking statins in your retirement years.
What We Still Don’t Know
Now, even with all of this research showing that statins don’t provide the mental edge we once thought, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone should be dissuaded from taking them. First, their health benefit through their reduction of bad cholesterol has never been cast into doubt. And having a healthy body remains as important as ever!
Next, none of these studies have decisively shown that statins have any harmful effect on cognition. Though some anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been memory disturbances among statin takers, this is not a widely recognized side-effect in the medical community.
Finally, no studies have been done examining whether taking statins during the middle of our lives might stave off dementia during our later years. It is possible that the benefits of lower cholesterol earlier in life might be reaped through delaying or even preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
So what can you take from all of this? First of all, if you’ve been prescribed statins for your cardiovascular health, you should continue to take them. That being said, don’t expect to see any benefit beyond what they’ve been prescribed for. If you do believe that you are seeing adverse effects report them to your doctor.
As for delaying Alzheimer’s, you may have to look elsewhere.