Researchers say high cholesterol is a major contributor to heart health problems and statins are an effective way to reduce cholesterol levels.
Statins cut risk of death from heart disease by 28 percent in men.
That’s according to a new study — the longest ever conducted of its kind.
Research from the Imperial College London and University of Glasgow reinforces current prescribing guidelines and concludes that even individuals with high cholesterol levels would benefit from these drugs.
More than 5,500 men ages 45-65 years old, who had no evidence of heart disease at the start of the study, took part in a randomized clinical trial to test the effectiveness of statins versus a placebo.
The group was then observed over the next 20 years.
Nearly half of the participants (2,560) had LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels of greater than 4.9 mmol/L, which is the highest category of cholesterol level.
“We provide for the first time ever the randomized trial evidence that lowering LDL cholesterol when levels are >4.9 reduces [cardiac] events,” Dr. Kausik Ray, lead author and from Imperial’s School of Public Health, told Healthline.
“Furthermore the 20 year mortality benefits support the important benefits of statins over the long term.”
The study found that compared to the placebo group there was an overall 27 percent reduction in risk of coronary heart disease, 25 percent lower risk of major adverse cardiovascular events, such as heart attack, and 28 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death.
“Our study lends support to LDL’s status as a major driver of heart disease risk and suggests that even modest LDL reductions might offer significant mortality benefits in the long term,” said Ray.
Additionally, they conclude that statins are beneficial for otherwise healthy, young individuals with high cholesterol who have no other signs or symptoms of cardiovascular disease.
The study puts a renewed emphasis on the correlation between heart disease and high LDL cholesterol levels.
“Risk for heart attacks and strokes — the number one killer of Americans — is directly related to LDL levels and that risk decreases with statin treatment,” said Dr. Jorge Plutzky, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA) and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“The findings of this study line up well with those other findings: elevated LDL levels predict future risk of heart disease, even among those who have never had a heart problem before.”
Statins are a well-documented class of drug for treating high cholesterol that includes atorvastatin (Lipitor), pravastatin (Pravachol), and rosuvastatin (Crestor).
According to the AHA they’re recommended for most people because they’re the only type of cholesterol-lowering drug that’s directly associated with reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
While statins have a good track record for safety — “excellent for the vast majority of people,” said Plutzky — they do also pose some health risks for certain individuals.
The most common side effects include muscle and joint aches. More serious but less common risks include liver and kidney damage, increases in blood sugar, and muscle damage.
Statins are also known to interact with grapefruit and grapefruit juice in a way that’s dangerous to people.
High cholesterol can be attributed to a variety of factors, including those which individuals have little control over, such as genetics.
However, cholesterol levels can often be improved through changes in diet and lifestyle.
Losing weight, even as little as 5 or 10 pounds, can help to reduce cholesterol levels.
Changing your diet is also a simple way to improve your numbers.
“One important dietary input to LDL levels can be the amount of fiber a person takes in, as found in vegetables and whole grains,” said Plutzky.
Reducing the amount of saturated fats and refined sugars and grains is also effective.
Even with diet and lifestyle changes, statins may still be required.
This research concludes that many individuals, particularly those in the highest range of LDL cholesterol, could benefit from statin treatment.
“This is the strongest evidence yet that statins reduce the risk of heart disease and death in men with high LDL,” said Ray. “The analysis firmly establishes that controlling LDL over time translates to fewer deaths in this population.”