March 16, 2009 (Washington, D.C.) -- Once again, there is evidence to suggest that the popular cholesterol-lowering statin drugs are good for more than just the heart. In a new study, the drugs cut the risk of hospitalization and emergency room visits in people with asthma by about one-third.
About 22 million American suffer from asthma, which is caused by inflammation and swelling of the airways. The inflammation, in turn, can cause excessive mucus production and narrowing of the airways, resulting in asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.
It makes sense that statins could help relieve asthma, says researcher Eric J. Stanek, PharmD, of Medco Health Solutions Inc., which manages prescription benefits for health insurers. In animal studies, the drugs reduced inflammation in the lungs. And a major study recently suggested that statins slash the risk of heart attack and stroke in people with normal cholesterol but elevated levels of C-reactive protein, which has been linked to heart problems.
For the new study, researchers at Medco and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston combed through the medical records of more than 12 million patients in Medco's database. They identified 6,574 patients who filled their first prescription for an inhaled corticosteroid, a mainstay of asthma therapy, in 2006. A total of 2,103 of those patients were also taking a statin drug.
All the patients had been hospitalized or had visited the emergency room for asthma at least once in the previous 12 months.
Over a one-year period, 20.5% of patients taking statins were hospitalized or visited the ER for asthma vs. 29.4% of those who weren't on statins, a significant difference.
The dose of statin didn't affect the results, Stanek says. And while the researchers didn't tease out whether one type of statin drug had more potent asthma-fighting properties than another, "there's no reason not to think" that they will all work equally well, he tells WebMD.
The study, which was funded by Medco, was presented at the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology Annual Meeting.
Nancy Ostrom, MD, co-director of the Allergy and Asthma Medical Group and Research Center in San Diego, cautions that no one should start taking statins in an attempt to ward off an asthma attack.
The research "raises interesting questions that need further study," she tells WebMD. Ostrom moderated the session at which the findings were presented.
The new study "provides additional impetus for people with asthma to undergo a careful assessment of their cardiovascular risks [so that doctors can prescribe] statin therapy when appropriate," he says.