From the Journals

AGA Clinical Practice Update: Statins are safe, effective, and important for most patients with liver disease and dyslipidemia



Lipid-lowering agents are safe and effective in patients with most liver diseases and should be used when indicated to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The medications are only contraindicated in patients with decompensated cirrhosis and statin-induced liver injury, Elizabeth Speliotes, MD, PhD, MPH, and her colleagues wrote in an expert review published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. In these patients, statin treatment can compound liver damage and should be avoided, wrote Dr. Speliotes and her coauthors.

Dr. Elizabeth Speliotes of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Dr. Elizabeth Speliotes

Because the liver plays a central role in cholesterol production, many clinicians shy away from treating hyperlipidemia in patients with liver disease. But studies consistently show that lipid-lowering drugs improve dyslipidemia in these patients, which significantly improves both high- and low-density lipoproteins and thereby reduces the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease, the authors wrote.

“Furthermore, the liver plays a role in the metabolism of many drugs, including those that are used to treat dyslipidemia,” wrote Dr. Speliotes of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “It is not surprising, therefore, that many practitioners are hesitant to prescribe medicines to treat dyslipidemia in the setting of liver disease.”

Cholesterol targets described in the 2013 American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association guidelines can safely be applied to patients with liver disease. “The guidelines recommend that adults with cardiovascular disease or LDL of 190 mg/dL or higher be treated with high-intensity statins with the goal of reducing LDL levels by 50%,” they said. Patients whose LDL is 189 mg/dL or lower will benefit from moderate-intensity statins, with a target of a 30%-50% decrease in LDL.

The authors described best practice advice for dyslipidemia treatment in six liver diseases: drug-induced liver injury (DILI), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), viral hepatitis B and C (HBV and HCV), primary biliary cholangitis (PBC), cirrhosis, and posttransplant dyslipidemia.


DILI is characterized by elevations of threefold or more in serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) or aspartate aminotransferase and at least a doubling of total serum bilirubin with no other identifiable cause of these aberrations except the suspect drug. Statins rarely cause a DILI (1 in 100,000 patients), but can cause transient, benign ALT elevations. Statins should be discontinued if ALT or aspartate aminotransferase levels exceed a tripling of the upper limit of normal with concomitant bilirubin elevations. They should not be prescribed to patients with acute liver failure or decompensated liver disease, but otherwise they are safe for most patients with liver disease.


Many patients with NAFLD also have dyslipidemia. All NAFLD patients have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, although NAFLD and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis are not traditional cardiovascular risk factors. Nevertheless, statins and the accompanying improvement in dyslipidemia have been shown to decrease cardiovascular mortality in these patients. The IDEAL study, for example, showed that moderate statin treatment with 80 mg atorvastatin was associated with a 44% decreased risk in secondary cardiovascular events. Other studies show similar results.

NAFLD patients with elevated LDL may benefit from ezetimibe as primary or add-on therapy. However, none of the drugs used to treat dyslipidemia will improve NAFLD or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis histology.


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