A Double-Edged Sword: Can Taking Statins Make You Age Faster?

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There's been some hype claiming that taking cholesterol cutting statins can make you age prematurely, but what does the data really say? 

Cholesterol lowering statins are some of the most prescribed drugs around. They have benefits in patients at risk of cardiovascular disease, but they can have side effects including muscle pain, memory loss, and lowering co-enzyme q10 levels. For large risk patients there is good supporting evidence, but there's some debate over their effectiveness in lower risk individuals. 

Do they really make you age faster? 

The scare comes from a new study which discovered statins can inhibit stem cell growth. The research team extracted stem cells from fat tissue in patients taking the drugs, and compared them to a control group. Stem cells exposed to statins became macrophages (a type of immune cell) far slower than normal. This explains some of the beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease, as it reduces the inflammation which makes plaques so dangerous. Unfortunately, statin use also inhibited differentiation into bone and cartilage, increased cell death rates and reduced DNA repair. The effect was largest in older patients. 

 

Statins can significantly reduce risk in some patients, but there may be a trade off

“Statins significantly diminish the ability of stem cells to grow and differentiate into new adult body cells. For example, in the brain, the lack of new nerve cells could result in memory loss and forgetfulness; in joints, the lack of cartilage renewal could lead to the clinical symptoms of osteoarthritis.”

 

Statins often effect people differently, and the risks have yet to be properly verified. This study raise some good questions, but it leaves many unanswered too. Stem cell proliferation does diminish with aging, but this could be for other reasons like a protective response to local damage. We don't know enough at this point. 

Statins may increase telomerase activity

Paradoxically, research has also found statins may slow down aging by increase telomerase activity and reducing the rate of shortening. This makes things very confusing. 

A double-edged sword?

This contradictory data makes it tricky to determine what's actually going on. It may be that statins have both positive and negative effects at the same time; speeding and slowing different parts of the aging process. Until we know more about aging itself, it's hard to accurately comment. It's important to weight up benefit and harm in any drug consumption and these side effects are a legitimate concern, but statins do save lives in many patients. We shouldn't be too quick to cast them aside until we have more information. 

Read more at The Guardian