The Link Between Statins, Memory Loss & Dementia

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Memory loss and dementia are some of many side effects of statins. Learn what to do if you think statins are causing memory loss for you.

If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, it’s very likely that your doctor prescribed a type of cholesterol-lowering drug called a statin.

Statins, also known as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world — and among the most profitable.

Annual worldwide sales are expected to soon reach one trillion dollars. (1)

Over one in five Americans between the ages of 40 and 75 takes these drugs ostensibly to prevent a heart attack or stroke. (2)

The US is currently experiencing epidemics of memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease (now the sixth leading cause of death in the US). (3)

This may not be a coincidence.

Is there a connection between taking statins and the rise in memory loss and dementia?

How Cholesterol Impacts Brain Health and Memory

Cholesterol has been demonized as a cause of heart disease, but it’s less known as an essential component of brain cells.

Cholesterol occurs in particularly high concentrations in the brain.

Your brain is 60% fat with much of that being cholesterol.

Without adequate cholesterol, your brain cells would die.

Cholesterol is needed to make neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.

Neurotransmitters regulate your mood and your ability to focus, learn, remember, and handle stress.

Abnormal neurotransmitter activity is responsible for many nervous system diseases and psychiatric disorders.

Even your doctor may not know that high total cholesterol actually reduces the risk of dementia in the elderly. (4)

" Nearly half of women who take statins eventually develop diabetes, a disease which greatly increases the risk for dementia.

But she certainly knows that cholesterol-lowering drugs can cause memory loss since this well-established side effect is listed on the label of every prescription bottle. (5)

Statin Side Effects: Memory Loss, Depression, and More

There is no doubt that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs like Mevacor, Lipitor, and Crestor are linked to serious memory loss, fuzzy thinking, and learning difficulties. (6)

Statins decrease the production of CoQ10, a nutrient that’s protective of both the heart and the brain.

CoQ10 deficiency is believed to be responsible for the fatigue and muscle pain commonly experienced with statin use. (7)

Some people get very irritable, depressed, anxious, or even suicidal when taking these drugs, or when following a low-fat diet.  (8, 9)

The US Food and Drug Administration requires that warning labels state that statins can cause memory loss as well as mental confusion, liver problems, and type 2 diabetes. (10)

Statins can lead to diabetes at an alarming rate.

Nearly half of women who take statins eventually develop diabetes, a disease which greatly increases the risk for dementia. (1112)

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Does High Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease?

The reason you’ve been told to lower your cholesterol is to prevent heart disease.

We know that heart disease is a killer.

It’s the number one cause of death in industrialized nations. (13)

For heart health, conventional “wisdom” tells us to eat a low-fat diet, avoid saturated fat, and keep our cholesterol level low.

But consider these facts:

  • Of all the people who are hospitalized for a heart attack, only 25% of them have high cholesterol.
  • The other 75% have normal cholesterol. (14

Clearly, high cholesterol is not the risk factor we’ve been led to believe.

The Cholesterol-Heart Disease Myth

“Fat and cholesterol cause heart disease” may be one of the biggest health myths of all time.

Eating a low-fat diet doesn’t prevent heart disease or help you live longer. (15, 16)

It turns out that there is no correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease.

Surprisingly, one study found that increasing fat intake to 50% of total calories improved the nutritional status of study participants, and did not negatively affect their heart disease risk factors. (17)

Considering how embedded the “fat causes heart disease” theory is in our culture, this is a stunning revelation!

In fact, high-fat diets lower triglycerides, normalize LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase LDL particle size, which are all good things for your heart health. (18, 19)

This graph illustrates the findings from a World Health Organization study on trends in cardiovascular disease. (20)

cholesterol level vs death rate chart
High cholesterol level is inversely correlated with death from heart disease.

It clearly illustrates a lack of correlation between cholesterol and death from heart disease.

Notice that the country with the highest levels of cholesterol — Switzerland — has one of the lowest death rates from heart disease.

And the two groups with the lowest cholesterol (furthest on the left) have the highest heart disease death rates.

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The American Heart Association’s Diet Is a Killer

The landmark Lyon Diet Heart Study followed approximately 600 participants who were at extreme risk for heart attacks.

They were overweight, sedentary, smoked, and had high cholesterol levels.

Half were put on a Mediterranean diet and half were put on what was called a “prudent” Western-type diet recommended by the American Heart Association. (21)

The study was halted before it was completed.

Why?

People on the Mediterranean diet were 45% less likely to die over the 4-year period than those on the prudent diet — even though their cholesterol levels didn’t budge.

However, so many people on the American Heart Association’s diet were dying that researchers felt it was unethical to continue putting study participants at risk. (22)

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Low-Fat Diets Don’t Help Your Heart or Your Brain

Some experts are finally coming around to the fact that low-fat diets haven’t worked to make us healthier or thinner.

The Harvard School of Public Health has repeatedly acknowledged that low-fat diets have been a failure.

Here are some statements found on their website:

“Dozens of studies, many from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers, have shown that low-fat diets are no better for health than moderate- or high-fat diets—and for many people, maybe worse.” (23)

“Since the 1960s, when experts started advising people to eat less fat — based on the belief that a high-fat diet led to a high-fat body — obesity has skyrocketed. Recent evidence suggests that all those years of focusing on ways to get fat out of foods has actually contributed to the obesity epidemic.” (24)

“Low-fat diets have long been touted as the key to a healthy weight and to good health. But the evidence just isn’t there: Over the past 30 years in the U.S., the percentage of calories from fat in people’s diets has gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed… And when it comes to disease prevention, low-fat diets don’t appear to offer any special benefits.” (25)

The graph below illustrates how the introduction of low-fat guidelines by the US government in the 1970s correlates with increasing obesity.

low fat guidelines vs obesity graph
The introduction of low-fat guidelines by the US government correlates with increasing obesity.

Low-Fat Diets and Memory Loss

Besides making us fatter and sicker, low-fat diets have also contributed to increases in memory loss and cognitive decline.

One way that low-fat diets wreak havoc on brain health is by contributing to acetylcholine deficiency.

Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter of memory and learning, and levels are typically extremely low in Alzheimer’s patients.

When insufficient dietary fat is available, the brain literally cannibalizes itself to get the fat it needs to make this important brain chemical.

This is as hazardous to your brain as it sounds.

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Cholesterol Particle Size Matters

Unfortunately, most doctors worry more about patients’ cholesterol numbers than their overall health.

Testing for HDL (good) cholesterol or LDL (bad) cholesterol levels is overly simplistic.

One test that does seem to provide good information about your risk for heart disease is to measure LDL particle size. (26)

Large LDL molecules just move through the bloodstream, doing no harm.

But small LDL molecules are caused by oxidation and are dangerous.

They embed themselves in artery walls, causing inflammation, and lead to plaque development. (27)

graphic showing relationship between ldl cholesterol size and heart disease risk
The relationship between LDL cholesterol size and heart disease risk. (Image courtesy of PeterAttiaMD.com)

The 5 Underlying Causes of Heart Disease

You may be wondering, “If high cholesterol is not the underlying cause of heart disease, what is?”

Jonny Bowden, PhD, and Stephen Sinatra, MD, authors of The Great Cholesterol Myth, discovered the five worst culprits proven to contribute to heart disease.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation promotes every known degenerative disease.

It causes microinjuries to your arteries, causing problematic plaque formation.

Free Radicals

Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that attack your cells in much the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust.

They also attack LDL cholesterol transforming it from large (safe) to small (harmful) LDL particles.

Stress

The stress hormone cortisol contributes to heart disease by increasing triglycerides and blood pressure, two common risk factors. (28)

Stress also contributes to plaque deposits in the arteries. 

Sugar

A 15-year study found there to be a strong correlation between sugar consumption and death from heart disease. (29)

Sugar promotes inflammation, raises blood pressure, and stimulates the liver to dump harmful fats into the bloodstream. (30)

Trans Fats

Trans fats are unhealthy fats found in processed foods. 

They increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, increase inflammation, and raise triglyceride levels.

The Reason Doctors Push Statins

All of this information may leave you bewildered why doctors prescribe statin drugs at all.

The answer isn’t pretty.

One study found that 65% of doctors don’t report statin side effects because they either don’t believe that there’s a correlation or they have been “influenced” by the drug companies. (31)

Harvard Medical School professor Jerry Avorn, MD, revealed in a Washington Post interview that:

We already know that there is horrendous underreporting of side effects. Ninety to 99 percent of serious side effects are not reported by doctors.” (32)

Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in continuing to promote this multi-billion dollar industry. (33)

Right now, one in five US adults use statins.

Recently, the American Heart Association released new guidelines that, if followed, could double the number of people taking cholesterol-lowering medications. (34)

You do the math.

The drive to increase the number of people placed on statins is working. According to GoodRx.com, the statin drug Lipitor is currently the #1 selling drug in the US.

You may think that the side effects of statin may be worth it if they significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, but their ability to prevent heart disease is widely overblown.

According to the latest research published in the British Medical Journal, the supposed benefits of statins are “small and uncertain” and the indiscriminate use of statins for heart disease prevention is “a waste of healthcare resources.” (35, 36)

What to Do If You Think Statins Are Causing Memory Loss

If you currently take a statin and are experiencing side effects like memory loss, mental confusion, or muscle pain, make an appointment to talk to your doctor today.

Go in armed with as much information on cholesterol as possible.

If you’d like a deep scientific understanding of cholesterol’s role in the body, I recommend Dr. Peter Attia’s 9-part blog series The Straight Dope on Cholesterol.

You’ll almost certainly know more about cholesterol than your doctor when you’re done.

Tell your doctor that you want to have the small particle LDL test done.

As a matter of course, most doctors don’t run this test.

Even doctors who understand the value of this test don’t recommend it because it’s normally not covered by insurance.

You can ask for it anyway and offer to pay out of pocket.

Another test to consider is the Vertical Auto Profile or VAP test. (37)

The Wall Street Journal has called the VAP test one worth paying for out of pocket. (38)

And finally, remember that preventing heart disease, not simply having “good numbers,” is the real goal.

You can proactively prevent heart disease by adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Drs. Bowden and Sinatra offer these simple lifestyle recommendations to address the true underlying causes of heart disease:

  • Eat a diet of unprocessed foods
  • Reduce sugar, grains, and vegetable oils high in omega-6 fats like canola oil
  • Eat heart-healthy fats like nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado (They are brain-healthy too!)
  • Manage stress
  • Exercise
  • Drink moderately
  • Don’t smoke
  • Take a CoQ10 supplement

Statins, Memory Loss, and Dementia: Take the Next Step

Low-fat diets and cholesterol-lowering drugs are not the keys to preventing heart disease.

But they are undoubtedly a common cause of memory loss and may contribute to dementia.

If you suspect that statins are the cause of your memory loss, talk to your doctor.

If your doctor is not open-minded about helping you get off cholesterol medication, find one that is.

Don’t let your brain be the victim of unnecessary medication.

You shouldn’t have to choose between having a healthy heart or a healthy brain.

READ NEXT: Drugs That Cause Memory Loss (& what you can do)

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