Cholesterol drugs may help even the healthy

By Daniel Q. Haney

Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Even heart patients with seemingly normal cholesterol levels live longer and better if they take cholesterol-lowering drugs, a discovery that could vastly increase the number of people using these already ubiquitous medicines.

The findings emerge from the largest experiment ever to test the power of so-called statin drugs, which already are recommended for about 36 million Americans at risk of dying from heart disease. The study was partially financed by Merck &Co., which makes Zocor, the statin used in the study.

Other statin drugs include Pravachol, Lipitor, Mevacor and Lescol. While the statin used in the study was Merck’s Zocor, Dr. Rory Collins of Oxford University, who directed the study, said he believes that all brands of statins are effective.

The study was conducted on 20,536 people who were considered at high risk of heart disease. Earlier research had not settled whether they specifically benefit from statin therapy.

One-third of the patients in the study had cholesterol levels that were already below the level recommended for statin treatment in the latest U.S. health guidelines. Yet they, like everyone else in the study, lowered their risk of new heart attacks and strokes by one-third if they took the drugs.

"This means that anybody who has any evidence of heart disease should be on a statin," commented Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of Cornell University’s medical school.

About 25 million people worldwide already take statins. Collins estimated that the latest findings mean about 200 million worldwide would benefit from the drugs, roughly double the number for whom they are currently recommended.

The 5 1/2-year study involved men and women ages 40 to 80. They were considered at high risk because of diabetes, previous heart attacks and other signs of clogged arteries, such as poor circulation in their legs.

The study was the first to include substantial numbers of diabetics with no outward signs of heart trouble, as well as women and people over age 70.

Besides lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes by one-third, the study found that statins also reduced the need for arterial surgery, balloon angioplasty and amputations.

The study, conducted at 69 British hospitals, cost $32 million. It was financed by England’s Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation, Merck and Roche Vitamins Ltd. The results were released at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

Guidelines issued last May by the U.S. National Cholesterol Education Program recommend statin treatment for heart disease patients whose levels of LDL, the bad cholesterol, are above 130. For levels between 100 and 130, the guidelines say treatment is at the doctor’s discretion.

In this study, 33 percent of the patients had LDL cholesterol below 116.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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