Cholesterol-lowering drugs could help to prevent diabetics and people at high risk of Heart disease from suffering a Heart Attack or Stroke even if their cholesterol level is not high, scientists said on Tuesday.
Millions of patients around the world are prescribed the drugs, known as statins, to reduce their cholesterol, but an international team of researchers said an even bigger group of people would benefit from the treatment.
“What we have shown is that the key thing is to find people who are at risk of Coronary heart disease or Stroke and treat them with a regimen that reduces LDL cholesterol substantially,” said Dr Colin Baigent, an epidemiologist at Britain’s Medical Research Council (MRC), who co-ordinated the study.
Baigent said lowering LDL with a statin could cut the risk of a Heart Attack or Stroke by as much as a third.
“The size of the reduction in the risk of major vascular events - Coronary heart disease or Stroke - is proportional to the size of the absolute reduction in LDL cholesterol,” he explained.
Pfizer’s Lipitor, Merck’s Zocor and AstraZeneca’s Crestor are among the leading statins. The drugs lower cholesterol by inhibiting an enzyme that controls how much is produced in the body.
A raised cholesterol level, along with smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and being overweight or obese, is a risk factor for Heart disease, one of the biggest killers in Western countries.
The researchers studied the results of 14 previous trials involving statin treatment in 90,000 people. In addition to high-risk patients with low cholesterol showing positive results, they said people who had the largest reduction in their cholesterol level reaped the highest benefit.
Professor Anthony Keech, of the National Health Medical Research Council at the University of Sydney, who co-ordinated the study team in Australia, said the size of the cholesterol cut was important.
“So, bigger cholesterol reductions with more intensive treatment regimens should lead to great benefits,” he said in a statement.
Baigent said the scientists found no evidence of an increased risk of cancer or that very low cholesterol levels were associated with increased odds of suffering from other diseases.
He said higher doses of statins were associated with a raised risk of serious muscle problems but that this was very rare.
Bayer AG’s cholesterol drug Baycol was pulled from the market in 2001 after being linked to dozens of deaths.
“When we have patients who have a very high risk of heart disease or stroke then the size of the benefits far outweighs any risks,” Baigent added.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD