Cholesterol-lowering medications called statins, including atorvastatin (Lipitor and generic), lovastatin (Mevacor and generic) and simvastatin (Zocor and generic), can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and might cause rare cases of memory loss, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Earlier this week, the agency said these new side effects would be added to the labeling of these drugs. Such risks underscore our advice to first try to reduce high cholesterol through lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise before turning to a statin.
The FDA said it added the diabetes risk because several studies in recent years found an increased risk of elevated blood sugar levels and diabetes in people who took statins. The memory risk is based on the FDA's review of studies and reports it has received of rare cases of people who developed memory loss or impairment after taking statins. The memory problems, which occurred in people over the age of 50, went away when the statin was stopped.
Bottom line: In addition to diabetes and memory problems, statins can cause other serious side effects, including muscle soreness and a rare condition that can cause kidney damage, kidney failure, and death, so you don't want to take one if you can avoid it. Many people with high cholesterol might be able to reduce it to healthy levels with exercise, modifying their diet, losing weight and other lifestyle changes, without the need for medication. If you already take a statin, these changes might allow you to discontinue your medication or lower your dose, which can in turn reduce your risk of side effects.