Women and Statins: More Research Needed

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF
Lisa Larkin, MD, & Associates | Cincinnati

Do you take statins? Doctors commonly prescribe statins to help patients lower their cholesterol and in turn, prevent heart attack and stroke. Women, however, have been greatly underrepresented in existing clinical trial research for statins, which has been performed primarily in men with results extrapolated to women.

As we know, women’s bodies function differently than men’s bodies, and statins seem to impact women differently than men. While clinical trials have established statins as a safe and effective therapy for men, more research is needed to guide specific recommendations for women.

Are They Worth It?

The benefits of statin therapy are clear for women with established cardiovascular disease at high risk of heart attack or stroke. But for women looking to prevent disease, the evidence does not show statins are as effective.

A recent review of medical literature found that statins do not significantly reduce coronary heart disease in women with no history of cardiovascular disease. Generally, statins might not be as effective in preventing heart disease in women as in men because women may develop heart disease differently, with cholesterol less of a factor.

Statins also affect other systems in the body, including the brain, breast and musculoskeletal system. It is unclear if these systems are affected differently in women taking statins, or if they suffer more adverse effects. Also not well understood is how statin use in women relates to hormones and drug interactions.

Statins and Aging

Statin therapy might also impact in some way common diseases related to aging, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, diabetes, cancer and more.

In the case of diabetes, some evidence indicates statins could accelerate the development of diabetes for those who are predisposed. For men at risk of a cardiovascular event, the benefits of statin therapy outweigh the risk of developing diabetes, but for women, the benefit is not as clear.

As it relates to cancer, individual studies have found potential relationships between statin use and cancer outcomes in women, but these studies are limited. More research is needed to examine the effects of statin therapy on breast and other hormone sensitive cancers.

Most patients tolerate statins well, but some people note side effects including headaches, nausea and muscle aches. Data suggests that women might be at somewhat greater risk of developing muscle aches when taking statins, possibly due to lower body mass, genetic variations or other factors.

Benefits and Risks: Talk It Out

Additional research into female-specific factors related to statin therapy could bring new insights. For now, while statins are the right therapy for many patients, they aren’t right for everyone. Your doctor can help you evaluate the benefits and risks for you.

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