The benefits and risks of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

The benefits and risks of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Over the past few years, cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins have become the most widely prescribed medicines in the world. The pills, which include Lipitor, Pravachol and Zocor, as well as less expensive generic brands, are so effective at reducing cholesterol levels that they've encouraged experts to lower the official recommended numbers for LDL for those people with the highest risk of heart disease.

Like most drugs, statins have side effects. Over time, 15 percent of people experience some problems. Most are mild, such as headaches or fatigue. But in rare cases, statins have been associated with a serious problem called rhabdomyolysis, which results in muscle damage and can even lead to liver failure. For that reason, doctors typically perform liver function tests periodically for people prescribed the drugs.

On balance, though, experts say the benefits for people with elevated cholesterol far outweigh the risks. And new benefits are being discovered all the time.

An analysis published in December 2005 showed that statins lowered the risk of heart attacks by 26 percent and of strokes by 18 percent. There's tantalizing evidence they may also protect against Alzheimer's disease and perhaps ward off age-related memory loss. A few studies have even suggested that statins may lower the risk of certain cancers. No wonder some doctors have joked that the drugs should be added to the water system.