Nov. 13, 2001 -- Nearly one-third of heart attacks and strokes can be avoided through the use of a cholesterol-lowering drug, regardless of age or sex, according to a new study.
The World Health Organization estimates that there are approximately 200 million people worldwide suffering from coronary heart disease, stroke, vascular diseases, and diabetes, all of whom would benefit from statins, according to this new study.
"This is a stunning result, with massive public health implications," said Dr. Rory Collins, lead researcher of the study and professor of medicine and epidemiology at England's Oxford University. "We've found that cholesterol-lowering treatment can protect a far wider range of people than was previously thought, and that it can prevent strokes as well as heart attacks."
The drug, simvastatin, is a member of a group of drugs known as statins, which have been shown to lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol in the blood. Statin drugs are currently used by approximately 25 million people worldwide.
Largest Study to Date
The Heart Protection Study, begun in 1994, was funded by the UK's Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation, Merck & Co. Inc., and Roche Vitamins Ltd. Over 20,000 volunteers aged 40 to 80 at high risk of heart disease were given simvastatin or a placebo over the course of more than five years.
The results show that the drug reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke in one-third of people. This includes people over 70, people with normal levels of cholesterol, those who have diabetes, and in both women and men. It was also shown that statins decrease the need for surgery, angioplasty, and amputations.
"This is stunningly good news for people at high risk and especially those who are older who've had a stroke," said Dr. Peter Sandercock, a stroke physician at the University of Edinburgh. "At the moment, there's little we can offer them. But now we can, and it's just one pill a day. There is no reason why these findings cannot be implemented immediately."
The study also looked at the effects of antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin E, C and beta-carotene. The results indicate that there was no benefit to taking these vitamins, but also indicated that there are no adverse effects to taking antioxidants, which some smaller studies have suggested.
"In this trial, 10 thousand people were on statin. If now, an extra 10 million high-risk people worldwide go onto statin treatment, this would save about 50,000 lives each year — that's a thousand a week," said Collins.
The Associated Press' Daniel Q. Haney contributed to this report