Statin drugs or HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors play a very important role in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. They are the first line treatment against high cholesterol levels. Statins have anti-inflammatory properties and interfere with the production of cholesterol thus slowing down the formation of plaques on the arterial walls.
According to the US FDA, statin medications
- work in the liver to prevent formation of cholesterol
- are effective in lowering bad cholesterol levels and raising good cholesterol
- are not recommended for pregnant patients or those with active or chronic liver disease
- can cause serious muscle problems
Statins are also said to be the bestselling drugs of all times, raking in billions of dollar in sales every year. Currently available statin drugs are:
- Lovastatin (Mevacor, Altoprev)
- Pravastatin (Pravachol)
- Simvastatin (Zocor)
- Fluvastatin (Lescol)
- Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
- Rosuvastatin (Crestor)
Recent studies indicate that statins may play a major role in therapeutic areas outside cardiovascular medicine, thus may earn the title of “the aspirin of the 21st century“. Some of these studies are summarized below.
Pneumonia is a major cause of mortality worldwide, even in developed countries. It has been reported that the incidence of pneumonia is increasing and hospitalization rates in the US and Europe have increased by 20 to 50% during the last 10 years. About 10 to 15% of pneumonia cases result in death.
Does statin use lower mortality rates due to pneumonia? Danish researchers report in the October 27 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine that “individuals who take cholesterol-lowering statins before being hospitalized with pneumonia appear less likely to die within 90 days afterward.”
The researchers studied data from 29,900 patients hospitalized with pneumonia between 1997 and 2004. 4.6% of these patients (1,371) were taking statins before and during hospitalization as anticholesterol treatment.
Death rates within 30 days among statin users were much lower (10.3%) were much lower than non-statin users (15.7%). The same trend was observed after 90 days, with 16.8% mortality rates among statin users compared to 22.4% among non-users.
The mechanism behind this effect of statins is not clear but the authors theorize that
“Statins change the immune response, beneficially affect processes associated with blood clotting and inflammation and inhibit dysfunction in blood vessels. These effects may especially benefit patients with sepsis and bacteremia, which are associated with early death from pneumonia.”
What does statin have to do with pregnancy? Researchers at Cornell University observed that statins can actually prevent antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), an inflammatory condition that causes serious complications in pregnancy ranging from spontaneous abortion, fetal growth problems and even fetal death. The researchers demonstrated this beneficial effect of statins in laboratory mice.
Statins seem to also have protective properties against dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. This is according to a study by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The researchers observed that “if a person takes statins over a course of about 5-7 years, it reduces the risk of dementia by half.” The study studied tracked 1674 older Mexican-Americans did not have dementia for 5 years. Within the follow up period, 130 study participants developed some form of dementia or cognitive impairment. The incidence of dementia was lower among the 452 participants who took statins at some point in the study. This is an interesting development in view of stories about the popular statin drug Lipitor causing memory losses.
Men who are taking statins to lower their cholesterol levels have lower prostate-specific antigen (PSA). PSA is a known biomarker for cancer risk. The PSA reduction seems to be related to statin use in a dose-dependent manner. The study followed up 1214 men who were on statins between 1990 and 2006 and monitored their PSA levels. Whether the effect of statins on the PSA levels translates into anticancer properties is not yet clear.
A previous study in animals has shown that some statins may be beneficial against multiple sclerosis when combined with other drugs. This was demonstrated by University of California researchers in mice. In another study, Phoenix researchers showed that simvastatin may have some anti-inflammatory effect that counteracts inflammatory components of multiple sclerosis. However, another study indicates that certain doses of stains combined with beta interferon may actually increase the clinical disease activity in patients with multiple sclerosis. “Caution is [therefore] suggested in administering this combination.” The latter study was based on data of 26 study participants.
Researchers at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia observed that cancer patients taking statins have lower incidence of blood clots than non-users. Thus, statins “may have a future in preventing blood clots in patients with breast, lung, colon and other solid-organ cancers.”
The abovementioned studies show that there are other potential uses of statins aside from lowering cholesterol levels. However, all these results are preliminary. Further and larger studies are needed to further explore these beneficial effects as well as the risks that may be involved. Many people will claim that most of the positive reports about statins are propaganda from the pharmaceutical companies. Conspiracy theories abound. However, if statins can provide health benefits beyond cardiovascular medicine, who are we to say no?
We also have to be aware that like all drugs, statins come with side effects. Most side effects are mild but some can be serious. Myopathy is a potential fatal denegerative disease of the muscles possibly linked to statin use.
Photo credit: stock.xchng