Statins, the controversial pills prescribed to lower cholesterol, lower the risk of premature death in people over 75 by a quarter, a study finds.
It was found that the risk of dying from a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, was 20 percent lower for those taking statins.
The benefits of the drugs – which help lower blood cholesterol – were even applied to people in their 90s and those with dementia.
The study adds to the evidence that thousands of deaths can be prevented each year if more elderly people are prescribed.
Scroll down for video
Researchers found that those who were prescribed statins had a 25 percent lower risk of death than their counterparts
“Statins are often studied and prescribed for middle-aged adults, but are not studied in people over 75 years of age,” said study author Dr. Ariela Orkaby, a physician-scientist with VA Boston Health Care System, a division of hospitals in Massachusetts.
“One of the most remarkable things about our results is that we found the benefit of statins true, regardless of whether someone was older or younger or had a condition like dementia.”
The Royal College of GPs has said it is “particularly comforting” to see the benefit of statins in those over 75.
Statins lower the cholesterol levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which can lead to hardening and narrowing of blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Research after research has shown, according to the researchers, that statins in middle-aged adults can prevent heart attacks, strokes and death.
But little work had been done to investigate its potential benefits for people over 75.
For example, in 28 major statin clinical studies, only two percent of participants were age 75 or older.
Overall, taking statins was significantly associated with a lower risk of death from a cardiovascular event or death from any cause. And the benefits remained for old-age veterans, including those who were 90 or older
This means that although older adults are at greater risk of heart disease and death, there is very little data on whether to prescribe statins for them.
For more information, the team looked at data on 300,000 U.S. veterans between 2002 and 2012.
The subjects were 75 years of age or older and had not previously had a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular event.
The mean age of the sample was 81 years and the study population consisted of 97 percent men and 90 percent whites.
The research team identified more than 57,000 people who started taking statins over the 10-year period.
They compared individuals who started taking statins with those who had the same chance of getting a statin based on clinical features, but who were not given a prescription for the drug.
In general, taking statins was associated with a lower risk of death from any cause, including a cardiovascular event.
Lower mortality rates extended to people with other conditions, such as dementia, who were excluded from previous studies.
Dr. Orkaby said it was intriguing to see a marked decrease in stroke rates among black statin participants, although they made up a small portion of the total study sample.
A disadvantage of the study is that simvastatin was, during the time frame, the most commonly prescribed statin, which is prescribed as a pill to lower cholesterol when patients have high blood cholesterol levels.
But currently, higher-dose, higher-intensity statins are more commonly prescribed.
While statins are generally well tolerated, many people report pain and side effect as a side effect, which may cause some to stop using the drug.
The current study did not evaluate whether patients discontinued statin use.
Overall, the data suggests it should continue for those older patients who are initiated on statins, said Kausik Ray, a professor of public health at Imperial College London.
“There was no excessive risk of death from any cause and even potential benefits, including those with baseline dementia or arthritis,” he said in a review of the study’s methods and findings.
However, the study focused only on veterans and a predominantly white and male population, which limits the extent to which the findings can be applied.
“Apart from the observation data, there is little data on non-whites and women,” said Professor Ray.
Professor Stephen MacMahon of Oxford University said there are weaknesses in the study “that make the conclusions unreliable.”
“For example, while there is a lower risk of death in those taking statins, the biggest decrease is the number of deaths from diseases that are not known to be linked to cholesterol,” he said.
In addition, there is no reduction in those conditions that are known to be particularly sensitive to statin treatment, such as myocardial infection and ischemic stroke.
Professor MacMahon also pointed out that it was not a randomized trial – the ‘gold standard’ used by drug regulators and clinical researchers to assess the benefits and risks of drug treatments.
However, two randomized clinical trials of statins in older adults are currently ongoing and the results of one of these studies are expected later this year.
Dr. Orkaby and colleagues plan to follow up their study by investigating the effects of statin dosing and examining the results for subpopulations included in their analysis.
The results of the team are published in JAMA.
Lower mortality rates extended to people with other conditions such as dementia – individuals who have been excluded from previous studies
Last year, a study found that up to 8,000 deaths can be prevented each year in the UK if everyone over the age of 75 is given statins.
An international team collected the data from the trials and found that the benefits far outweigh the rare side effects.
In 2017, one 20-year review by British researchers found that the heart pills lowered the risk of premature death by 28 percent.
Men who use statins have a 24 percent lower risk of a fatal form of prostate cancer last year’s study also revealed.
Despite this, controversy has long existed as to whether statins should be routinely taken by the elderly.
“This topic has been controversial in the past with several mixed results, showing little or no benefit of statins in this age group,” said Dr. Riyaz Patel, associate professor of cardiology at University College London.
“This in turn has led to uncertainty as to whether statins should be started or even stopped in the elderly.”
WHY IS STATINS CONTROVERSIAL?
Statins are the most commonly prescribed drug in the world, and an estimated 30 percent of all adults over the age of 40 are eligible to use them.
The cholesterol-lowering medications are given to people who are believed to have a 10 percent or higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease or heart attack or stroke within 10 years.
They have been proven to help people who have had heart problems in the past, but experts say the thresholds are too high, meaning the benefits outweigh the side effects for many people.
Nearly all men cross the 10 percent threshold by age 65, and all women do so by age 70, regardless of their health.
Common side effects include headache, muscle pain and nausea, and statins can also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, hepatitis, pancreatitis and vision problems or memory loss.
Research published last year in the Pharmaceutical Journal found that taking a daily statin for five years after a heart attack extends your life by just four days, new research reveals.
And Dr. Rita Redberg, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told CNN in January that of 100 people who use statins for five years without having had a heart attack or stroke, “the best estimates are that one or two people will avoid a heart attack , and no one will live longer by taking statins.