Depending on your health history, your lifestyle habits may determine how long you need cholesterol medication.
Colleen Travers,Feb 12, 2020 • 4 min read
If you have high cholesterol and are at risk for developing heart disease, your doctor may have decided it’s time for a statin prescription. One of the most effective treatments for lowering LDL “bad” cholesterol (which can build up as plaque in arteries and lead to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke), statins may lower heart attack risk by 25 percent. According to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 78 million U.S. adults are eligible for statin therapy based on their cholesterol levels and health history, making statin prescriptions extremely common.
But if you’re worried that once you’re on a statin drug, it will be a lifelong prescription, you’re not alone in sharing this fear. In fact, it’s one of the biggest myths out there. Read on for details on how long it takes to see if your statin is working—and the factors your doctor uses to determine how long you need to stay on one.
An Rx May Not Be Your First Line of Treatment
“If possible, my first option is always a trial of diet and exercise,” says Pilar Stevens-Haynes, MD, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, NY. “This works particularly in patients who are at a low risk for developing heart disease and have no personal history of it.” Your doctor may recommend a treatment plan of eating better and moving more, monitoring you for up to six months to see how much you can lower your blood cholesterol levels on your own. Depending on the patient, in addition to a healthy diet, natural supplements like fish oil, which has been shown to reduce triglycerides (another type of fat found in your blood) and increase HDL “good” cholesterol, might be recommended in place of medication.
Statins Take Time to Kick In
“Once a patient has been prescribed and regularly starts taking a statin, we typically wait about three months before checking to see if it is working as a treatment option,” says Dr. Stevens-Haynes. “If you check too soon after starting a statin you might not accurately see if it’s doing its job, and this could lead to increasing the dosage for no reason.” Aside from checking your cholesterol levels at this follow-up, your doctor will also check your liver enzymes to make sure there’s no increase there as well, which can sometimes lead to liver inflammation. (A spike in liver enzymes may require a statin switch.)
You May Be Able to Lower Your Dosage
Depending on how disciplined you are about following a healthy diet and exercise routine, your doctor may decide after that three month check-in to lower your statin dosage to see if your cholesterol levels can stay stable with less medication. However, keep in mind this is typically only done in otherwise healthy patients who have no personal history of heart disease or other pre-existing conditions like diabetes. “When you have heart disease, you will most likely always be on a statin,” says Dr. Stevens-Haynes. This is the best way to protect your health and prevent any primary or secondary cardiac events from occurring.
If You Do Have to Take a Statin Indefinitely, It’s Safe to Do So
As long as you stay on top of your appointments and tests, taking a statin long-term is safe, but depending on your health history, there are some side effects to be aware of. “The biggest complaint I see with statin users is around muscle aches and cramps,” says Dr. Stevens-Haynes. In severe but rare cases a condition called rhabdomyolysis may occur, which is a breakdown of muscle tissue that then leads to too much protein leaking into the blood that can eventually cause kidney damage. Certain supplements may help these aches—Dr. Stevens-Haynes says there’s been conflicting research on coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which is available in supplement form—so make sure to talk to your doctor at the first sign of symptoms to help you find relief.
“Some research has linked long-term statin use with memory loss,” says Dr. Stevens-Haynes. “This is why a doctor will work to find the lowest statin dose possible to help minimize any potential side effects.” Again, be sure to mention any side effects like memory loss to your doctor so they can tweak your treatment plan if needed.
Once you and your doctor determine if you need a statin (and this may include any of the following drugs: atorvastatin (Lipitor), simvastatin (Zocor) lovastatin (Mevacor) rosuvastatin (Crestor), or pravastatin), check to see if you can get your prescription for less with Blink Health.