Statins, prescribed to lower cholesterol, may reduce a person’s risk for depression, according to a new study from the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center. The study did not prove that statins should be prescribed for depression or other mental health problems.
Statins, sold under brand names like Lipitor, Lescol, Pravachol, Crestor, Zocor, and Mevacor, are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States. One out of four adults over 45 take these drugs, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which translates to 36 million people.
For the new study, Dr. Mary Whooley and her colleagues evaluated 965 patients who had suffered heart attacks or had other signs of heart disease. Over 60% were taking a statin and of these, 17% screened positive for depression compared to 24% of those who did not take drugs. In the course of the six-year study, 18% of the drug users and 28% of the non-drug users became depressed at some point. This translated to a 38% reduced risk for developing depression within the group of 520 people who were taking statins.
This did not necessarily mean that statins enable people to be happier. The effect in the statin-using group could have been caused by their having less anxiety about their health because they were taking drugs. The people taking statins tended to be wealthier, and they were less likely to have histories of smoking or depression.
“We live in such a cholesterol-phobic nation, if you take something that lowers your cholesterol, you may feel better,” said Dr. Charles Blatt, of the Lown Cardiovascular Center in Massachusetts.
However, Dr. Christian Otte, of the Charite University Medical Center in Berlin, commented that “it is possible that statins exert beneficial effects on depressive symptoms through protective effects on cerebrovascular processes.”
Previous studies on statins found that they lead to an increased risk for diabetes and memory loss, and in rare cases, they can cause liver and muscle damage.
The study appears in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.