Statin medications and heart health

Rebecca Gayle, Humana Pharmacy Clinical Pharmacist

For the past 9 years, Humana Pharmacy® clinical programs pharmacist Rebecca Gayle, Pharm.D., has helped patients like you manage their heart health. Every day, Rebecca works with patients to reduce their likelihood of heart attack and stroke by assisting them with their medications.

Rebecca shares her thoughts on the importance of statin medications for a strong and healthy heart. And she provides her expert guidance to help you decide if you should talk to your doctor about statins.

And now—let’s hear from Rebecca:

Statins 101

When you see a heart symbol this February, don’t just think of Valentine’s Day! February is also American Heart Month. As a pharmacist, I regularly review Humana members’ medications after a recent hospital stay, and one of the medications often missing is a statin, which protects the heart and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.

The statin family of medications, which includes atorvastatin (Lipitor®, rosuvastatin (Crestor®) and simvastatin (Zocor®), lowers cholesterol. 5 to 10 years ago, statin medications were prescribed based on your cholesterol levels alone and, in particular, the levels of your total low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol. Even though your doctor still measures these labs and may start you on a statin for high cholesterol, this is no longer the main force behind starting a statin medication. Current recommendations for prescribing statins have changed. Now, your health conditions play a more significant role in deciding whether you should take a statin to protect your heart.

Who should take a statin?

If you have the following health conditions, taking a statin medication could be right for you, as recommended by the American Heart Association® and American College of Cardiology®:

  • History of a heart attack or stent
  • History of nonbleeding stroke or ministroke (TIA or transient ischemic attack)
  • Diabetes

Statins can help protect your heart, even if your doctor has told you that your cholesterol numbers are within the normal range. If you’re not taking a statin and have these health conditions, it’s important to talk to your doctor to see if a statin is right for you.

How do statins protect against heart attacks and strokes?

Besides lowering cholesterol levels, statins do many other things to help protect your heart. Here are some other important benefits of taking a statin:

  • They prevent a buildup of chunks of fat (known as plaque) within the arteries, which can eventually block blood flow in the heart (causing a heart attack) or break off from the artery wall and then land in your brain (causing a stroke).
  • Statins also help the plaque inside your arteries to better stick to the artery walls to stop them from breaking off.
  • Statins lower the levels of stress and inflammation within your heart.

What are the risks of taking a statin? What should I do if I have side effects?

Like with any medication, starting a statin has benefits and risks. As I’ve already mentioned, there are many long-term, positive health benefits of taking a statin. However, statins should be avoided if you have liver disease or if you experience serious side effects from taking the medication, such as severe muscle pain that also affects kidney function, called rhabdomyolysis, which is rare.

Common side effects of statins include mild muscle pain that affects both sides of the body. If you have mild muscle pain from taking a statin, it’s best to ask your doctor about trying a lower dose or changing to a different statin that might cause fewer side effects, such as pravastatin (Pravachol®) or rosuvastatin (Crestor®). If you are still unable to take statins due to the side effects, ask your doctor about alternative heart-protective medications, such as ezetimibe (Zetia®) or omega-3 ethyl esters (Lovaza®).

Hopefully, after reading this article, you have a better understanding of how statins can improve heart health. Now, this February, you can protect your heart for yourself and your loved ones by talking to your doctor about statins to see if they are right for you.

To learn more about cholesterol, heart health and statins, please visit the American Heart Association.

Disclaimers: This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor to determine what is right for you.