Statins may help with dementia, Parkinson’s, cancer, stroke and more

Statin drugs are known to reduce levels of cholesterol. Their primary use is aimed at helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. But there is evidence that statins may be useful in a number of other disease states, from dementia, to Parkinson’s, to various cancers.

There are a number of statin drugs available. They function by inhibiting an enzyme that is necessary for cholesterol synthesis. Blocking this enzyme, which is named 3-hydroxy-3-methyl-glutaryl-CoEnzymeA (HMGCoA) reductase (HMG-CoA reductase), also decreases production of a number of other intermediate compounds that are precursors of cholesterol. Among these is mevalonate (more on the importance of this later.)

Statins also have some other effects, in addition to lowering cholesterol.

Statins are anti-inflammatory

Simvastatin

Simvastatin

Inflammation occurs when the tissues in the body respond to some type of irritant, infection or to cellular injury.

The inflammatory response is an effort to limit damage and initiate repair. Sometimes the inflammatory response needs to be controlled when it is too robust and may be causing associated damage to the tissues where it occurs. Statins and other anti-inflammatory medications, like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can help control this response and decrease the pain and swelling that are happen.

Statins also stabilize the plaque that builds up in arteries, and treating other diseases

Statins also stabilize the plaque that builds up in arteries. Theoretically, the more stable the plaque is, the less likely it is to serve as a site where a blood clot can occur in an artery, leading to a heart attack or possibly a stroke. Statins also seem to act to inhibit the formation of clots in these arteries as well.

Information has been accumulating that statins may be effective in treating other diseases. Some of these are: dementia, Parkinson’s disease, some forms of cancer, high blood pressure and, possibly, some others.

One study shows that a particular statin, simvastatin, seems to reduce the risk of both dementia and Parkinson’s disease in an older patient population (65 years and over.) The study used data from a large number of patients. The authors concluded that simvastatin can reduce the incidence of both dementia and Parkinson’s in a significant number of treated patients. Also, regarding statins decreasing the risk of dementia, see European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress 2013. Abstracts #1609, P4077.

Some research has shown that statins might not only be able to prevent some cancers, but they might also be able to act in conjunction with some chemotherapy drugs to improve the outcome of cancer treatments. As mentioned previously, the effects here might be related to the statins’ ability to decrease the production of mevalonate.

[S]everal preclinical studies indicate that statins may have cancer chemopreventive properties. The mechanistic data suggest that statins’ chemopreventive potential against cancer through their inhibition of the mevalonate pathway [54]. The mevalonate pathway is an important metabolic pathway that provide cell with bioactive molecules which play a key role in multiple cellular processes such as membrane integrity, cell signaling, protein synthesis, and cell cycle progression [55]. Statins’ inhibition of HMG-CoA reductase prevents the conversion of HMG-CoA to mevalonate, and thereby reduce levels of mevalonate and its downstream products, probably resulting in control of tumor initiation, growth, and metastasis [56], [57].
Increasing evidence also suggests that statins might enhance the antitumor activity of various cytokines and chemotherapeutic agents. In a phase 2 study of irinotecan, cisplatin, and simvastatin for untreated extensive-disease small cell lung cancer (ED-SCLC), the results indicated that the addition of simvastatin to irinotecan and cisplatin might improve the outcome of heavy smokers with ED-SCLC [58]. And another phase 2 study of gefitinib plus simvastatin versus gefitinib alone showed that simvastatin might improve the efficacy of gefitinib in that subgroup of gefitinib-resistant non-SCLC patients [59]. Because this field is new, only a few clinical trials have been reported so far. Therefore, the combined treatment of tumors with statins and anticancer drugs is an area of research that warrants future study.  (For additional information, see #53-60 from the linked research.)

This study presented some additional evidence that statins can act to lower blood pressure, even if given to patients who have normal cholesterol levels. Some of the evidence supports previous claims that statins could lower blood pressure. Though the author doesn’t recommend the routine use of statins as antihypertensive agents, he suggests that further research in this area might prove useful.

Statins may also have a role in reducing future strokes in some patients who have already suffered a stroke.

They may be useful in the treatment of chronic kidney disease in some patients.

Statins seem to decrease the recurrence of prostate cancer after initial treatment either via surgery or after internal radiotherapy treatment.

Current research is also looking at other diseases where statins might prove useful. Several of these diseases have an inflammatory component and statins may prove beneficial here.

Statins are not without risk

While the statins may be beneficial in a number of conditions, not just in cardiovascular disease, they are by no means totally benign drugs. They can have potentially serious, sometimes fatal, consequences. Most people have heard that statins can cause muscle pain. They can also, rarely, produce a reaction (rhabdomyolysis – destruction of muscle tissue) that can be fatal. And given with some other drugs (e.g., niacin, gemfibrozil and others) or foods (grapefruit juice), the risk of side effects from taking statins increases. There may also be a slight increase in the risk that a patient taking a statin could develop diabetes.

However, all drugs have side effects — we’ve all seen the commercials on TV, with the announcer in the most soothing voice possible informing us that the drug could kill us — and not every drug will work well for every patient. Before starting any prescription medication, consult with your doctor and discuss the risks and benefits of the medication.


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Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • will

    We are the only animal that continues to drink milk beyond infancy and also we are the only species that drinks the milk of another species. We drink the milk meant to turn a calf into a cow in a matter of months.

  • janchup

    Another “article” deliciously seasoned with propaganda for the purpose of increasing Big Pharma’s revenue. All the various “possible benefits” purported are old news, repackaged for those who swallow “facts” without careful chewing.

  • kladinvt

    I found a bit of vague terminology used in this article such as “some research” or “one study”, used to qualify an expanded use of statins. Maybe for those people already stuck taking a variety of pharmaceuticals, who have other chronic illnesses, then statins might help, but let’s not promote their use, like a daily vitamin.

  • emjayay

    Anyone need a nice set of grapefruit knives?

  • Silver_Witch

    Thank you Doctor – I will have to study more on the liver producing cholesterol. I have seen a very bad episode of someone taking Statins and when the rage was discussed it appears this too can be a side-effect (Statin Rage).

    I always worry a little about “blanket” fixes – but it is important to know when you should get some help pharmaceutically.

  • docsterx

    There are other methods of lowering cholesterol, both through pharmacology and otherwise. You might want to look into those options with your doctor.

  • docsterx

    Good questions.

    You’d need to look at the individual study. Often studies are comprised of both males and females. But sometimes they will be limited to just one sex. Example, in the study cited on Parkinson’s and dementia, the authors reviewed records of military personnel in the Veterans’ Administration health system, presumably both male and female. Of course, in the prostate study, only males were enrolled.

    Yes, the body needs and uses cholesterol for a number of different things. Cholesterol is used to make some hormones, it’s used by the central nervous system, it’s used in cell membranes and in other ways. The liver will still produce cholesterol, even when someone is taking statins, even at very high doses.

  • 4th Turning

    Introduction: It’s Time to End the Low-Fat Myth
    How Fat Moves from Food to the Bloodstream
    How Fat and Cholesterol in Food Affect Blood Cholesterol Levels
    Dietary Fats and Heart Disease: Healthy Fats in Healthy Diets
    Dietary Fats and Diabetes
    Dietary Fats and Cancer
    Dietary Fats and Other Chronic Conditions
    Dietary Fats and Obesity
    The Bottom Line: Recommendations for Fat Intake
    References
    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/fats-full-story/#Intro

    I liked the part about it being good for testosterone levels, too.

  • 4th Turning

    Just don’t slip up and mention a certain nineteen letter word!

  • 4th Turning

    This is great to hear. Selfish I know but we need you to stick around for a good long
    time! My point and I think maybe Naja’s is do you remember anything at all about
    those stupid, shamefully lacking 8th grade health classes most managed to snooze
    through to their sooner or later sad misfortune…(Not a question.) It must be very
    sad and disheartening for a pediatrician to examine a child whose skin contains
    two or more other individuals… And shame on any profession that could stand
    by and let such a thing happen to its society.

  • Cletus

    Yep, pravastatin being the last. My doctor’s not happy because he’s a really strong advocate of them.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    That’s actually kind of a myth. Most mammals will drink milk, from their own species or others, if it is offered to them. The reason they don’t normally drink milk is simply lack of access. Mother animals in the wild aren’t in the habit of just letting anyone nurse off of them. They carefully protect their milk supply for their offspring. Humans on the other hand, intentionally keep domestic animals in a perpetual state of lactation so we can nurse off of them.

  • Silver_Witch

    Oh sorry – that was not my contention. My contention was that since the brain is made of cholesterol perhaps restricting it is not a good idea. I thought the fact that one needs cholesterol as a builder of brain – indicates it is a necessary ingredient to our wee brains.

    Rats! Once again I fail.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Everybody stop being so nice. Mark may think we actually like him again ;-)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    You need it as a baby. We need milk generally as babies, but I’m pretty sure we’re the only mammal that drinks milk as an adult. So what you need as a baby is not necessarily what you need as an adult.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yeah I think mark had written about grapefruit juice before, I don’t recall. But there were some articles recently about just how many drugs interact with grapefruit juice, you REALLy have to be careful. As I recall, it does something that basically make more of the drug enter your system, so you end up getting crazy concentrations of it, which can be very harmful.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    As much as Americans seem to like to blame people for their health problems, many conditions, including things like high cholesterol, can be caused by factors well beyond lifestyle choices.

    Regardless, I can’t imagine the prospect of cholesterol reducing drugs is encouraging many people to chug vats of saturated fat, with the premise that they can just take a pill and suffer no ill effects. Apathy and ignorance are usually the cause of long-term conditions. Education should be the first tool in any real health care system.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Sure. Though I’m not obese, or even overweight, and my cholesterol has always been high – like 220 and up. It was finally like 250 maybe 7 or 8 years back, the doc said try the statin, mom said “no”, try exercise and eating better first, so I ate like a nun, if that’s an expression, for 6 months and exercised like, well, exercised a lot. I got it down to 200. So i went on the statins, and now it’s routinely between 140 and 170, with low bad chol and high good chol, so I’m sticking with em.

  • Silver_Witch

    One question – are these tests involving women? Mayo Clinic says those at highest risk of side effects are:

    Being female
    Having a smaller body frame
    Being age 65 or older

    ….hmmmm women

    One point the brain is comprised of Cholesterol. I have heard of studies where women actually develop “dementia” type symptoms upon taking certain Statins. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/its-not-dementia-its-your-heart-medication/

    I have read this which is pretty interesting

    “Not only that, mother’s milk provides a specific enzyme to allow the baby’s digestive tract to absorb almost 100 percent of that cholesterol, because the developing brain and eyes of an infant require large amounts of it. “

    If the human body needs cholesterol to develop brains – perhaps restricting it is not such a great idea.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Oh wow. I’ve been lucky. First I was on vytorin, which my doc didn’t bother mentioning costs $150 a month. Then when my insurance ran out, I switched to simvastatin, which is like 9 bucks for 3 months, and works great for me. Really great, my cholesterol is absurdly low, with great “good” cholesterol. You’ve tried several?

  • pappyvet

    Another good article with great information. Thanks Doc

  • Cletus

    Too bad. I’ve yet to try a statin that didn’t make me feel miserable, with flu like symptoms, that stuck around months after stopping them.

  • 4th Turning

    While I am very sympathetic toward all facing the prospect of serious health worries and could
    possibly benefit from new therapies/procedures, don’t reports like this reinforce a widespread
    assumption that personal responsibility for best health practices isn’t so much a concern
    since there’s always another miracle pill/cure on the horizon that will compensate for and
    excuse us from a life time of arrogance/apathy in caring for and maintaining the most
    wonderful machine in the entire universe.

  • bkmn

    After hearing an Westminster Town Hall forum on NPR with Dr. Agus as the lecturer I investigated statins and asked my physician about starting them. My cholesterol was borderline but with my family history of CV disease and cancer the decision to start a statin was indicated. I’ve not had any side effects and my cholesterol/lipid profile is now far below the danger zone.

    Dr. Thoma’s piece today only makes me feel better about my choice.

  • bkmn

    Grapefruit and grapefruit juice have multiple known drug interactions. If you consume grapefruit and take any prescription medication you should discuss possible interactions with your doctor and pharmacist.

    Dr. Thoma that might be a good topic for a future article – the number of drugs that interact with grapefruit.

  • Indigo

    No grapefruit juice? No thanks.

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