Cholesterol-Lowering Drug Reduces Dementia Risk by 70%
Nov. 9, 2000 -- Statins, a new class of cholesterol-lowering drugs already widely used to prevent heart disease and stroke, also may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. A recently released study suggests people who use medications in the statin family may be 70% less likely to get Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
Statins are used to lower levels of artery-clogging fats, or lipids, in the blood stream. They tend to lower both LDL cholesterol as well as triglycerides, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
"In this ... study we found that people who took statins ended up with lower risk for dementia than people who never took lipid-lowering drugs," David Drachman, MD, tells WebMD. They also had lower risk for dementia compared to people who took lipid-lowering drugs that were not statins." Drachman, an author of the study, is professor and chairman of neurology at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine in Worcester.
In the study, published in the Nov. 11 issue of The Lancet, researchers looked at data from medical practices in the U.K. They compared 284 patients with dementia to more than a thousand people who didn't have dementia.
People who took statins were about 70% less likely to get dementia, compared to people who weren't taking any medications to lower their cholesterol levels, and compared to people who were taking cholesterol-lowering drugs that weren't statins.
"Statins have a number of wonderful effects," Drachman says. He explains that in addition to their lipid-lowering effects, they also allow "tiny blood vessels to be more flexible and transmit more blood. We suspect, but we have no proof that this may be responsible for the lowered risk of dementia we observed in our study."
A study like this, based on a medical database, has limits. However, it can serve as a valuable pointer to ideas that need to be studied more thoroughly. Hershel Jick, MD, another author of this study, recalls that in the early '70s he worked on a similar study on the relationship between low-dose aspirin and heart attacks. "After the first study, it took 10 or 15 years and many more studies to establish the facts beyond a reasonable doubt," says Jick, who is an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
Clinical trials, which would establish the facts, are difficult and very expensive to do, Neil Buckholtz, PhD, tells WebMD. "We estimate prevention trials probably cost $7 to $11 million per year over five to seven years. Nonetheless, perhaps a prevention trial on statins should be considered." Buckholtz is chief of the dementias of aging branch of the National Institute on Aging.
It is way too soon for doctors to prescribe statins for their possible preventive effect on dementia. "We've never suggested that people should start using medications based just on [population, rather than clinical studies]," Buckholtz says. "We have to wait for more data. For those people who are already taking statins, it may reduce their risk of dementia, or it may not. We just don't know at this point."