What are statins?

How Statins Drugs Work

Sure this looks delicious, but it's also a recipe for a cholesterol disaster.
Sure this looks delicious, but it's also a recipe for a cholesterol disaster.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Before statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs didn't prevent its production, but its absorption from the gut. The side effects were pretty severe, and many patients didn't find that the benefits outweighed the end results, which were spotty at best. Statins came along in the late 1980s. There were no obvious side effects, and they had an immediate impact on a patient's cholesterol levels, so doctors jumped on the bandwagon.

The statins' job is pretty simple. They work by blocking the enzyme in the liver responsible for producing cholesterol -- hydroxyl-

methylglutaryl-­coenzyme A (HMG-CoA reductase). If your overall cholesterol level is 240 grams per deciliter (mg/dL) or greater, then it's considered high. If your overall level is below 240, but your LDL cholesterol level is higher than 130 mg/dL, then it's also considered high. This doesn't necessarily mean that you're on a one-way street toward heart disease. There are many other factors that will determine whether you'll eventually have a heart attack:

  • your lifestyle
  • your weight
  • your age
  • whether you smoke
  • whether you have diabetes
  • whether you have high blood pressure

If you're a smoker or overweight, your doctor may even consider a cholesterol level greater than 180 to be high.

If the only thing you have going against you is your cholesterol levels, then you probably don't even need to go on statins at all. You can correct that problem through exercise and diet. If you have some of the other risk factors, then your doctor may decide that a statin is right for you, along with changes in your diet and lifestyle. If you're prescribed the popular drug, consider it a lifelong commitment -- statins only work while you're on them. Once you stop taking them, your cholesterol will go back up.

There are some other potential benefits that statins may provide, like helping to prevent dementia, but long-term studies are still needed to confirm most of them. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that patients on statins are less likely to develop cancer, but this single study alone isn't enough for doctors to prescribe the drug for this purpose. Researchers argue that more specific studies are needed, and the National Cancer Institute is developing phase II trials to do just that.

Statins also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body's blood vessels, which help to stabilize them and make plaque less likely to rupture and clog the arteries. They also thin the blood, which helps to reduce the chances of blood clots. Other potential benefits that haven't been proven include reduced risk of dementia, prevention of arthritis and protection of the kidneys. It's no wonder that doctors are so high on statins.

If you have high cholesterol, you aren't pregnant and you don't have chronic liver problems then your doctor may suggest you try one of these six statins:

  • Lipitor
  • Lescol
  • Mevacor
  • Pravachol
  • Crestor
  • Zocor

Statins differ in potency and the amount of cholesterol production they inhibit, depending on your needs. It's also important to check into how your statin interacts with other prescription drugs you're taking. They also differ a great deal in price, ranging from about $35 for a low-dose monthly Lipitor prescription to $140 for a high-dose of Zocor. Mevacor, Pravachol and Zocor are the only ones available in generic form, which can save you a bundle and inspire you to keep taking them.

Despite their popularity, statins can have some pretty nasty side effects -- so many that some doctors are dead set against them.