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October 2018

Don’t Have High Cholesterol? You Still Might Need a Statin

If you have diabetes or a history of cardiovascular problems, your doctor may prescribe a medicine called a statin, even if you don’t have high cholesterol. Here’s why.

Older man sitting at kitchen table with medicines and glass of water

Understanding cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body uses to break down fatty foods and make hormones.  Your liver produces all the cholesterol your body needs. Extra cholesterol comes from eating foods like meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products.

Two types of cholesterol travel through your blood. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol works by moving harmful cholesterol back to the liver, so it can be flushed from the body. Having higher HDL levels decreases your risk for heart disease and stroke. The other type is low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol. If too much LDL builds up on the walls of your arteries, they can become clogged and narrow, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.  

Statins are medicines that reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol the liver produces. They also help lower the amount of LDL cholesterol already in your blood. Some statins can reduce inflammation as well.

When do doctors recommend a statin?

Your doctor may prescribe a statin if you have a high risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years. Your LDL level is only one factor your doctor considers when calculating your risk. Others include:

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Race

  • Blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • Taking medicine for high blood pressure

  • Smoking

  • A family history of premature cardiovascular disease

  • A previous heart attack or stroke

Doctors may advise a statin for people older than age 21 who have a very high LDL level: 190 mg/dl or higher. They may also recommend you take a statin if you have diabetes or a history of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack, stroke, or peripheral artery disease—a narrowing of the arteries to your legs, stomach, arms, and head.

Manage your options

If you start taking a statin, keep using it exactly as prescribed. Most side effects go away as your body adjusts over time. Speak with your doctor if you have sore muscles, memory problems, or other serious side effects. Your doctor can change your dose or switch you to another statin or a different type of medicine.

Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/7/2018
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