When is it worth taking statins to lower high cholesterol?

Photo of a woman reading a package insert
PantherMedia / Diego Cervo

Statins have been shown to prevent cardiovascular disease and increase life expectancy. Most people tolerate them well. Whether or not it's worth taking them will depend on what other risk factors you have.

Statins are medications that lower the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood. But they also have other effects on the vessels in our body. So your cholesterol level is not the only thing to take into account when deciding whether it's worth taking them.

A much more important factor is that a number of large-scale studies have shown that decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and increase life expectancy.

Several types of have been approved for use in Germany. They are: atorvastatin, fluvastatin, lovastatin, pitavastatin, pravastatin, rosuvastatin and simvastatin.

What do you need to take into account when deciding whether to take statins?

People who have a high risk of cardiovascular disease are usually offered treatment using because the advantages for them significantly outweigh the disadvantages. This is particular true of people who

  • already have a disease of the heart or the blood vessels, like coronary heart disease,
  • have other risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure or being a smoker or extremely overweight, or
  • who have a family history of extremely high (familial or primary hypercholesterolemia).

If you don't have an existing condition and only have a slightly increased risk of cardiovascular disease, will only provide a limited amount of protection. So it's particularly worth discussing the advantages and disadvantages with your doctor.

Whether or not to take is always a personal decision. A lot of people who have a low risk of cardiovascular disease often decide to start off by making lifestyle changes to improve their cardiovascular health. Others decide to take because the benefits – however small – are important to them. You can also change your mind later if, for example, new risk factors develop or your personal situation changes.

How can you estimate your own risk?

You can ask your doctor to help you assess your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They will use a computer program based on data from long-term studies that monitored the health of thousands of people.

To calculate your risk, the program will need information about the following risk factors:

  • Age: The risk of cardiovascular disease increases the older you get.
  • Sex: Men are at higher risk than women.
  • Family history of heart disease: The risk is higher if your brother or father had a or stroke before the age of 55 or your sister or mother before the age of 65.
  • Whether you smoke
  • Whether you have high blood pressure
  • Whether you have type 2 diabetes
  • Your : High total cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) are potentially harmful.

The program then calculates your risk as a percentage showing your likelihood of having a stroke or a heart attack within the next ten years.

How does your individual risk influence the benefits of statins?

The two graphs below show how important it is to take all possible risk factors into account when deciding whether are the right option for you. They are based on the example of two women (Mary and Veronica) and two men (Peter and Yusuf).

They are all 50 years old and have the same, high . But their risk of cardiovascular disease is different:

  • Mary's blood pressure is slightly higher than the normal level but she doesn't have any other risk factors.
  • Veronica is a smoker and her father had a at the early age of 50.
  • Peter has that are slightly higher than normal but no other risk factors.
  • Yusuf has extremely high blood pressure and is a smoker.

The graphs show the risk of a or stroke in the next ten years for each person – with and without . As we can see, offer almost no benefit at all for Mary because she doesn't have any other risk factors. Yusuf, on the other hand, would benefit greatly because of the higher risk for men and due to his other risk factors.

The benefits of statins depend on personal risk factors - An example based on two women
The benefits of statins depend on personal risk factors - An example based on two men

By the way, the risk of a 50-year-old having a or stroke (due to natural causes) is 3% for men and less than 1% for women over the next ten years if they don't have any risk factors.

What are the side effects of statins?

Statins are usually well tolerated. One possible, but rare, side effect is aching or tired muscles. Large-scale comparative studies over a period of five years show:

  • 95 out of 1,000 people who took a placebo reported aching muscles.
  • 101 out of 1,000 people who took reported aching muscles.

In other words, 6 out of 1,000 people who took for five years had aching muscles as a result of the medication.

The studies also show that muscle ache is common in people who don't take . But many people who do take them tend to mistakenly assume that they're the cause of their aching muscles. So it makes sense to talk to your doctor if you think your muscle ache is due to rather than just stopping the course of treatment right away.

In rare cases, can result in premature (early-onset) cataracts. Researchers found that 1 out of 1,000 people developed statin-induced cataracts within the space of a year. If this happens, it may be necessary to replace the lens of the eye with an artificial lens.

Statins can also lead to a slight increase in blood sugar levels, but this is very rare and doesn't usually have any impact on the person's health.

Are statins safe?

Since have a very low risk of serious side effects, experts agree that the advantages of taking them significantly outweigh any disadvantages.

Rhabdomyolysis is an extremely rare but serious side effect where the muscle tissue in certain muscles gradually breaks down. This can lead to permanent paralysis, and the breakdown products can cause kidney damage. Studies observed this side effect in about 1 out of 10,000 people over the course of a year. It is slightly more common if high doses are taken.

Rhabdomyolysis can make your muscles feel painful or quickly tired, or your urine turn a reddish or dark color. If you notice this, it's important to stop taking the and seek medical advice immediately.

Many people would rather not have to take medication regularly over longer periods of time. They might worry that leftover medication will build up in their body. But fears like this are unfounded: Our bodies continuously break down medications and get rid of them with the help of various mechanisms.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on February 9, 2022
Next planned update: 2025

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.