Doctors Discredit Lipitor's Link to Memory Loss

Most say the drug's benefits far outweigh the possibility of the side effect.

ByABC News
February 12, 2008, 9:26 PM

Feb. 13, 2008 — -- Doctors have largely discredited an anecdotal link between the popular cholesterol drug Lipitor and memory loss.

The possibility of such a link involving the widely used statin drug surfaced Tuesday in an article published in The Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps the most controversial statement was attributed to Dr. Orli Etingin, vice chairman of medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital, who noted, "This drug makes women stupid."

Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of the Weill-Cornell Medical School in New York, noted that the quote was likely taken out of context when Etingin spoke at a recent luncheon on women and the brain.

But Etingin also mentioned that two dozen of his patients who take Lipitor have reported fuzzy thinking and memory loss.

Despite these reports, ABC News medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson said he believes a rational response is due.

"You can never make policy based on one case, and when you look at the overall evidence, it does not appear that problems with cognition are a common or serious side effect," Johnson said.

"In general people should not worry, but if they're having a problem, they should talk to their doctors about switching the drug they are on."

Currently, about 18 million people take Lipitor, which is made by Pfizer. Memory loss is not listed as a side effect on the drug's patient information sheet.

When asked about the possibility of memory loss, Pfizer responded with a statement that claimed less than 2 percent of Lipitor users which would account for about 360,000 people reported such a side effect. The company noted that its research has shown no cause-and-effect link between the statin drug and memory problems.

Many doctors agree that there is little cause for alarm.

"[Etingin's statements] are unnecessarily inflammatory," said Dr. James Stein, of the division of cardiovascular medicine at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Stein says the reports could be the result of a "nocebo" effect, where the patient attributes unrelated health problems to a drug-not-producing side effect in many ways the opposite of a placebo effect, in which patients attribute improved health to a sugar pill or other sham treatment.