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Experts say statins may help with COVID-19 because they lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. Marko Geber/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that statins appear to significantly lower the risk of death from COVID-19.
  • They say the cholesterol-lowering drugs may do this by reducing inflammation and lowering blood pressure.
  • An estimated 35 million people in the United States take statins.

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While it’s been established that the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 work well and are safe, there is still much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus itself.

Scientists continue to explore the potential harms of COVID-19 to the body and study ways to prevent people from getting seriously ill or dying from the disease.

In a new study from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, researchers reported that people taking statin medications had a 41 percent lower risk of in-hospital death from COVID-19.

Statins are widely prescribed drugs commonly used to reduce blood cholesterol levels by blocking liver enzymes responsible for making cholesterol.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 93 percent of people who use a cholesterol-lowering drug use a statin.

The new findings expand on previous research conducted at UC San Diego Health in 2020.

Dr. Lori Daniels, the lead author of the study, is a professor and director of the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UCSD Health.

She told Healthline that there was speculation about certain medications that affect the body’s ACE2 receptor in the early days of the pandemic, including statins, and whether they could influence COVID-19 risk.

She said the findings of the study were clear.

“The bottom line is that if you have underlying heart disease, you should be on a statin if your doctor says you should, but now you have another good reason. It will lower your risk of dying from COVID-19 by as much as 40 percent,” Daniels said.

Researchers said there are several reasons statins may help reduce COVID-19’s severity.

Among them are that statins can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and help stabilize other underlying conditions that can raise the risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

She explained that the initial study included 170 anonymized medical records from people receiving care at UC San Diego Health.

In these people, researchers reported that statin use before hospital admission for COVID-19 resulted in a more than 50 percent reduction in risk of developing severe infection.

But the scientists wanted to expand on this finding.

Using data from the American Heart Association’s COVID-19 Cardiovascular Disease Registry, Daniels and her team applied their original findings to a larger cohort.

Researchers analyzed anonymized medical records of 10,541 people admitted for COVID-19 from January through September 2020 at 104 U.S. hospitals.

The conclusion was that the use of statins before hospitalization for COVID-19 is associated with a “substantially reduced risk of death and severe COVID-19, especially among those with CVD [cardiovascular disease] or hypertension,” Daniels said.

People taking statins before hospitalization for COVID-19 had substantially lower odds of death, primarily among individuals with a history of CVD and/or hypertension, according to the investigators.

“These observations support the continuation and aggressive initiation of statin and anti-hypertensive therapies among patients at risk for COVID-19, if these treatments are indicated based upon underlying medical conditions,” the study concluded.

However, Daniels did have one cautionary note.

“We must be careful to say that statins are associated with, and not causing, the improved outcomes since my observational study cannot prove causation,” she said.

The recent study does raise the question of if this same type of benefit potentially can work on other viruses for people who are taking statins.

“This is somewhat speculative, but I believe the answer to this is yes,” Daniels said.

“There are data out there prior to COVID, including with prior SARS, ARDS, sepsis, and other pneumonias, that have been suggestive of a benefit, and that’s one of the reasons the statin hypothesis emerged during COVID,” Daniels said.

“For the same reasons — stabilization of underlying CVD and possibly anti-inflammatory effects — it may be associated with improved outcomes in other viruses as well,” she added.

An estimated 35 million people in the United States take statin medications.

For most people, statins are safe, according to a 2014 Johns Hopkins meta-analysis of 20 years’ worth of published research.

In fact, many doctors believe that millions more people worldwide over 50 should be taking statins because they reduce the risk of a heart attack and stroke in people at moderate risk, according to the American Heart Association.