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The Puzzling Status of Statins: How Can Cholesterol Drugs Prevent Parkinson's, But Cause Alzheimer's-like Disease?

The Puzzling Status of Statins: How Can Cholesterol Drugs Prevent Parkinson's, But Cause Alzheimer's-like Disease?

This week, competing reports on cholesterol lowering drugs called statins, and the effects they have on the brains of those who take them, have popped up in the press.

In this corner: A study published in the March edition of Archives of Neurology suggests that people taking statins  — the most prescribed drugs in the world — may slightly lower their risk of developing Parkinson's disease (PD).

In that corner: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially acknowledged that statins carry a risk of cognitive side effects.  This information will be added to the labels of brand names such as Lipitor, Zocor, and Crestor.

How can statins both lower risk for a neurological disease like Parkinson's and increase the chances of memory loss and cognitive decline?  Are these drugs good or bad for the brain?  Even our CEO, Todd Sherer, one of the smartest guys we know, had to admit that something didn’t compute.

As is often the case in the world of drug developmental science, answers aren’t easy to come by.

Here’s how the Archives of Neurology study went down: Researchers from Harvard Medical School followed more than 38,000 men and nearly 91,000 women over the course of 12 years, and found that those taking statins were less likely to develop Parkinson's than those who did not.  Of the entire group, 644 were diagnosed with Parkinson's.

Compelling numbers. But this is the first study of its kind, and needs to be replicated before anyone can draw serious conclusions about whether statins might lower the risk of Parkinson's. According to Michael J. Fox Foundation's Dr. Maurizio Facheris, how statins interact with the brain likely depends on a combination of personalized factors.

Still, Dr. Roy Alcalay of Columbia University Medical Center told Health 24 News that he sees at least one takeaway: Statins don’t increase the risk of Parkinson's.

The FDA label change, on the other hand, implies a risk in cognitive decline for everyone taking the drugs.  According to stories in The New York Times and NBC News, anecdotal evidence has long suggested that statins can cause temporary memory loss and muscle pain, and increase diabetes risk.  Physicians stress that statins are not for everyone with high cholesterol, and that decisions about their use should be made on an individual basis.  Still, the vast majority of those who take them never experience any of these serious side effects.

The message to people with Parkinson’s and those taking statins to reduce cholesterol levels? You’ve heard it before: More research is needed. In the meantime, it’s critical to make all health care decisions in consultation with a qualified health care professional… so keep those lines of communication open with your doctor.

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