Med/Psych Update

How to assess and manage high cholesterol in patients with mental illness

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Statins, lifestyle changes could reduce total cholesterol and cardiovascular risk



High serum cholesterol is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke,1,2 yet remains one of the most under-screened and undertreated modifiable risk factors in persons with mental illness. Well tolerated and effective treatments can considerably lower the risk of cardiovascular events, and should be offered to psychiatric patients who are at high risk, while considering possible adverse effects and potential interactions between psychotropics and medications used to lower cholesterol.

Systematic lowering of total cholesterol and, particularly, atherogenic low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and non-high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, results in consistent and significant reduction in risk of cardiovascular events in persons at risk for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) and in preventing reoccurrence of these events.1,3,4 Even individuals who have relatively lower levels of total cholesterol but are at high risk (such as if a cardiovascular event has occurred) could reduce their CVD risk (known as secondary prevention) through lipid lowering therapies.5,6

Adults with psychiatric illness shoulder a disproportionate burden of CVD morbidity and mortality, especially those with severe mental illness (SMI, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, treatment-resistant depression).7-9 Among modifiable CVD risk factors, dyslipidemia has the highest rates of missed screenings and treatment within psychiatric populations. In one analysis, up to 90% of adults with SMI and identified lipid disorders did not receive treatment.10 Persons with SMI generally do not receive guideline-concordant, systematic quality preventive care, which contributes to a widening mortality gap for this population.11,12

This review aims to provide clinicians with practical guidance on the assessment and management of high cholesterol to improve recognition and treatment, lower CVD risk, and reduce this observed mortality gap.

Screening and diagnosis

In 2013, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) released updated guidelines on diagnosing and managing high cholesterol to reduce CVD risk.1 These guidelines focus on updated 10-year CVD risk assessment models with treatment goals reliant on adherence to statin therapy rather than pre-specified cholesterol targets listed in previous guidelines.13

Updates to assessment and treatment guidelines have removed some barriers to screening and diagnosing high cholesterol—namely, fasting lipid panels are no longer required to determine 10-year CVD risk and initiate treatment.14 For adults taking a second-generation antipsychotic that is associated with weight gain and metabolic syndrome, experts generally recommend yearly non-fasting lipid panels.6,14

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening:

  • men age ≥35 at average risk for CVD every 5 years
  • women age ≥45 every 5 years15
  • adults as young as age 20 who have accelerated risk factors, such as cigarette smoking and hypertension
  • adults with a family history of heart attack or stroke in male first-degree relative age ≥50 and female first-degree relatives age ≥60.

Many adults receiving care in behavioral health settings, regardless of their medication regimen, qualify for screening at least every 5 years, if not more frequently. Although statin treatment before age 40 is less beneficial and likely not necessary for primary prevention, monitoring could help identify alternative therapies and prioritize more intensive diet and lifestyle modifications.

Clinical data necessary to calculate 10-year CVD risk

At a routine office visit, clinicians can collect vital signs, record smoking status, and reconcile all medications, which provides the data needed to calculate a patient’s 10-year CVD risk (Table 1). Coupled with laboratory testing, which includes a non-fasting total cholesterol, HDL, and hemoglobin A1c (representative of a 3-month blood sugar average, ≥6.5% is diagnostic of type 2 diabetes mellitus [T2DM]), all data points can be entered into online risk calculators (search “ASCVD risk calculator” or visit to access the ACC/AHA risk calculator). Persons scoring >20% 10-year risk are considered at extremely high risk, and are in the same risk category as adults with existing CVD or who have had a cardiovascular event. Persons at <5% 10-year risk generally are considered low risk, and primary prevention with a statin medication is not indicated.

Treatment and management

Dietary modification and lifestyle changes (exercise, quitting smoking), lowering high cholesterol with medications, and switching from highly metabolically active drugs to less metabolically active ones can help lower total cholesterol in patients at risk of CVD.


HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors (statins) consistently reduce total cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol by 30% to 50%, depending on drug and dosage (potency, listed as low, medium, and high). Not all statins are equally effective at lowering cholesterol; some are more potent than others (Table 2).16

Statin medications by dose and treatment intensity

Individuals are eligible for statin therapy based on their level of CVD risk. Persons at higher risk generally benefit from greater intensity statin treatment and cholesterol reduction; highest intensity statin regimens can lower total cholesterol by approximately 50%.

There are 4 statin eligibility classes (Table 3). Most adults fall into category 4: 10-year risk of >7.5% and needing primary prevention. In addition to removing specific LDL targets as therapy goals, calculation of this risk percentage and the specific cut-off values have been the most controversial aspects of the new cholesterol guidelines. Most experts agree that, in adults age 40 to 75, 10-year risk >10% indicates daily statin use as tolerated for primary prevention, and 10-year risk <5% does not warrant statin use. Recent large studies have validated these new techniques for calculating risk, and found them to be beneficial in potential for cost savings and risk classification.17,18

Statin eligibility classes

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