Risks of Cholesterol Drugs
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The Risks of Cholesterol Drugs


Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

Part 1 discussed how cholesterol is an essential molecule for the body, especially for the nervous system and spinal cord. In spite of the hype otherwise, too low cholesterol levels are associated with numerous health problems, including compromised mental health, infectious disease, and increased risk of dying. 

For example, a recent Norwegian study indicated death rates were highest in individuals with the lowest cholesterol levels. In women specifically, as cholesterol levels increased to what had been previously deemed especially unhealthy, death rates declined.  The investigators concluded “clinical and public-health recommendations regarding the dangers of cholesterol should be revised.”

Given such recommendations, many are reconsidering the prevalent practice of prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs, especially when such drugs are associated with numerous adverse effects. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration announced that many of these drugs will now have to be labeled with side-effect warnings. Even if risks are relatively low, because the consumption of these drugs is so extensive, the cumulative societal health impact over time may be substantial.


The most commonly prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs are statins (see table). They work by blocking an enzyme involved in cholesterol synthesis. As an analogy, view this biosynthesis like a heavily trafficked, eight-lane Interstate highway leading to a pro-football stadium being shut down to two lanes due to construction. Statins are the molecular equivalent of lane-narrowing traffic cones and speed bumps in the cholesterol-producing, biochemical pathway. As a result of these barriers, less cholesterol can get into the “game.”

Many scientists now believe that any statin-induced reduction in cardiovascular-disease risk is not directly due to cholesterol lowering but related to other physiological factors, such as lessening inflammation. This appears to be the case for SCI, where rat studies suggest that the statin drug Lipitor limits the infusion of inflammatory molecules into the injury site, reducing damage.

Statins are hugely profitable. For example, Lipitor is the world’s top-selling medicine, generating over $13 billion in sales in 2010. Taking statins is not like taking antibiotics for a UTI in which once the infection has been cured you can quit taking the drug. With statins, nothing is fixed; you are expected to take them the rest of your life. As such, you are essentially providing drug makers a life-time financial annuity that either you or society must pay. Given the massive numbers of people prescribed statins, one can only imagine the health-care savings that would accrue if the underlying foundation for statin use was no longer valid.

Brand Name

Statin Ingredient



Zocor, Vytorin




Mevacor, Altoprev




Side Effects

Because statins reduce cardiovascular-disease risk by only a small amount at best, any life-extending benefits are counterbalanced by a multitude of devastating side effects. In other words, you may avoid a heart attack but, for example, be more prone to get cancer or a neurological disorder. In the case of Lipitor, 100 people will have to take the drug for over three years to prevent one heart attack. The other 99 will be taking on a lot of adverse side effects for no benefit at a huge cost.  Because many of the side effects only surface over time, they are not attributed to statin use but interpreted as new, distinct health issues, requiring treatment with yet additional drugs.

A tip-of-the-iceberg listing of adverse effects is provided below:

Diabetes: Because diabetes is related to cardiovascular problems, physicians often prescribe statins. In fact, however, statin use actually raises blood sugar levels, increasing diabetes risk. Because cholesterol is the biochemical precursor to vitamin D, statin use may compromise vitamin-D levels, a nutrient that regulates blood-sugar levels.

Polyneuropathy is a condition in which peripheral nerves are damaged. Statin users have more polyneuropathy, a serious implication for diabetics already predisposed to this disorder.

Muscle Damage: Many statin users experience muscle pain and weakness. Research indicates that statins compromise the ability of muscles to repair and regenerate. These problems may be caused by a depletion of Coenyzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a nutrient vital for cellular energy production. Because CoQ10 is manufactured by the same biochemical pathway that generates cholesterol, statins inhibit its production, contributing to muscle weakness. If you take statins, take them with CoQ10, a readily available nutritional supplement. Recognizing the problem, at one time, drug makers even considered adding CoQ10 to their statin formulations.

Heart Failure: Because the heart is a muscle, evidence suggests that statin-induced CoQ10 depletion may actually promote, not prevent, heart failure.

Stroke: Statin use increases second stroke risk.

Liver Damage: In a Swedish study, 57% of all statin-connected adverse drug reactions were related to drug-induced liver injury.

Impotence: Because cholesterol is the biochemical precursor for testosterone, it’s not surprising that the use of cholesterol-lowering statins is associated with sexual dysfunction. Given that SCI already compromises testosterone production, it is questionable whether individuals with SCI should be administered a drug that further inhibits testosterone synthesis.

Cancer: Animal studies suggest that statin consumption increases cancer risk. Several human studies validate this concern.

Memory Loss is associated with statin use. For example, former Astronaut Dr. Duane Graveline has written Lipitor: Thief of Memory (2006) and other books describing how he lost his short-term memory after taking Lipitor (see sidebar & www.spacedoc.com).

Neurodegenerative Disorders: Statin use has been linked with several neurodegenerative disorders. For example, statin-depleted CoQ10 levels may facilitate the development of Parkinson’s disease, associated with shaking and difficulty with walking, movement, and coordination. In another example, research suggests that patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) who possess higher cholesterol levels live longer.


My college chemistry professor believed that scientists should run society because they have been trained to be objective. After spending years in Washington, DC policymaking positions, I roll my eyes when remembering his naivety and now cynically believe that sanctimoniously called “objective science” is an oxymoron. Although an invaluable sign post guiding us to new knowledge, the scientific process is imbued at all levels with subjectivity, including, in the case of cholesterol-lowering drugs, economical agendas and underlying statistical manipulation.

For example, a 2004 National-Institutes-of-Health expert panel recommended that acceptable cholesterol levels be revised downwards, a decision that would greatly increase statin-drug market size. Surprise, surprise, the majority of panel members had financial conflicts of interests with statin-drug makers.

Statistical manipulation is another issue. Considered objective-science’s cornerstone, statistics are used to anoint study validity, theoretically transcending subjectivity.  In reality, they are more reflective of Mark Twain’s wisdom: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” By tweaking, manipulating, and presenting data in a fashion that promotes desired results, statistics are used to bolster economic agendas. For example, if TV news show reports that a study demonstrates that a certain drug greatly lowers disease risk, the proclamation usually reflects only relative, not absolute, risk. To illustrate, if 10 out of 10,000 untreated people normally die from a disorder but only 5 die in 10,000 treated individuals, the relative risk has decreased by 50%, but the absolute risk reduction (5 out of 10,000) is less impressive. Both risks are valid, but one sounds earth-shaking and the other insignificant.

In addition, although risk reduction for a specific endpoint (e.g., cardiovascular disease) is emphasized, the more important effect on overall mortality is often ignored. In other words, will you live longer? 

In conclusion, as with all things in life, truth is relative and depends upon the goals, objectives, and perceptions of those assessing it. You need to determine your own truth for your situation by educating yourself on potential risks relative to benefits. It’s your life; do not abdicate your responsibility.

When we doctors first asked Merck pharmaceutical company about the nature of the remarkable new statin drugs, we were told it inhibited a key enzyme in cholesterol synthesis. For most of us, this was not much of an explanation but we asked no further questions because we were so delighted to have such an effective drug. In many cases the use of a statin resulted in as much as a 50% drop in cholesterol. All we knew was that biochemists found that this enzymatic step to cholesterol synthesis could quite easily be inhibited, and with results like this most of us were happy – no questions asked. Then we gradually learned the truth, that to inhibit cholesterol we must also inhibit CoQ10 and dolichols, key substances vital for health. [See main text & also Part 1].

The reduction of cholesterol leads to severe cognitive dysfunction in many statin users since cholesterol is vital to the formation and function of memory synapses in our brains. The alteration in cell function resulting from the inevitable inhibition of CoQ10 and dolichol is giving us the rest of our broad list of incapacitating adverse effects - the rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle fibers), permanent myopathy (dysfunction of muscle fibers), permanent neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves) and ALS-like neuromuscular degeneration that has placed many hundreds in wheelchairs - yours truly included.

And now we are told that cholesterol reduction has nothing to do with statin benefit! The positive effect on some cases of cardiovascular disease has to do with an anti-coagulant function that only recently has been identified and for which the cholesterol lowering doses of the past are completely irrational.

Duane Graveline MD MPH, family doctor, USAF research scientist, NASA astronaut, and statin victim.


Adapted from article appearing in August 2012 Paraplegia News (For subscriptions, call 602-224-0500) or go to www.pn-magazine.com