Thousands of lives would be saved if more people over the age of 75 took cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, a large new review of studies suggests, according to the BBC.
“There has been a longstanding controversy over whether statins are effective and safe in the elderly,” said Professor Colin Baigent, one of the authors of the study.
Until now, there had been an “evidence gap” on the effects of statins on that age range, and doctors have shied away from prescribing the drugs due to side-effects and controversy over how often they are prescribed more generally. But the new research suggests these side effects are “massively outweighed” by the potential benefits for an age group at high risk for heart disease.
“One of the issues we have is that very often doctors are unwilling to consider statin therapy for elderly people simply because they’re old, and that, I think, is an attitude that is preventing us from making use of the tools we have available to us,” Baigent said.
In the UK, currently only a third of those over 75 take statins, and the researchers say increasing this number will save lives and improve quality of life. Heart disease kills about 150,000 people every year in the UK, and two thirds of those are over the age of 75.
Statins cut down on the buildup of fatty plaques that clog blood vessels. But there was little hard data on how the drugs help people over 75.
The review considered 28 randomized controlled trials including almost 190,000 patients, and found the drugs reduce the risk of heart disease in all age groups. The benefits were most pronounced in those that had already experienced cardiovascular disease.
The researchers found that as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad cholesterol” was lowered by the drugs, the risk of heart disease declined. A 1.0 mmol/L reduction was shown to reduce risk by a fifth for all ages. Since the risk levels are particularly high for those over 75, this would represent a significant benefit.
Statins use can result in side effects including muscle pain, digestive problems, and increased risk for diabetes. But Baigent says these effects are “massively outweighed, both in middle age and the elderly, by the benefits of statin therapy that we already know about”.