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No link between statins and memory loss, major Australian study finds

The most comprehensive study of its kind has found no link between statins and cognitive decline. In fact it has found the opposite: the widely prescribed medication could help protect at-risk patients from dementia.

Australian scientists tracked the effects of the cholesterol-lowering drugs among 1037 elderly Australians over six years. They hoped their analysis would be reassuring for doctors and patients concerned by anecdotal reports suggesting that the medication could trigger memory loss.

“As a statins prescriber, I shared these concerns,” said study lead Professor Katherine Samaras at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. “But we looked at it in every possible way and we couldn’t find an effect on memory from statins.”

The findings were crucial, considering elderly patients have been known to stop taking the potentially life-saving medication in response to reports of side-effects.

The research team conducted exhaustive assessments across five cognitive domains among 395 participants who had never taken statins and 642 who had. They used 13 different tests and MRI scans, and controlled for other factors that could affect memory and cognition including age, sex, obesity, cardiovascular conditions and a dementia susceptibility gene known as APOE.

There was no difference in the rate of change in memory loss or other cognition over time between the statin users and participants who had never used the drugs, found the study, which as published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In fact, among a subset of participants with risk for dementia (for instance heart disease or diabetes) statins seemed to be protective: cognitive decline was slower among statin users than non-users, Professor Samaras said.

“The patients who tell me they may not be thinking clearly and blame their statin usually have other things going on that affect their memory: they’re obese or have high blood sugar, vascular disease, sleep apnoea, consuming too much alcohol, their B12 levels are low.”

Professor Samaras said that in rare cases, individuals seemed to metabolise statins “in an odd way” that appeared to affect their memory. “But if you are having memory loss you really need to speak to your doctor to work out what exactly is going on before accepting that you may be one of these care cases,” she said.

Professor Ashley Bush, director of the Florey’s Melbourne Dementia Research Centre, said the lack of a link between statins and cognitive decline was “a very important piece of information from a very nicely done study”.

“Clinically, it reassures us that if patients need to be on statins to treat their heart or vascular disease that they aren’t going to be running a risk of accelerated dementia or accelerated cognitive loss,” he said.

The Heart Foundation’s cardiovascular risk reduction manager Natalie Raffoul said the suggestion that statins could slow cognitive decline were exploratory and needed to be investigated in future trials.

Professor Perminder Sachdev, study co-author and co-director of the University of NSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing said the observational study design meant the findings were not conclusive, “however, the evidence is mounting that statins are safe in relation to brain health”.

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