By Maureen Salamon
WEDNESDAY, July 24 (HealthDay News) -- Millions of Americans take statins to lower their stroke and heart attack risks, but new research from Taiwan suggests the drug may offer another health benefit: cutting the odds of developing Parkinson's disease.
Analyzing nearly 44,000 patients, scientists found that those who discontinued taking fat-soluble statins such as simvastatin (Zocor) or atorvastatin (Lipitor) were about 58 percent more likely to develop Parkinson's than those who kept taking the drugs.
Fat-soluble statins are believed to cross the blood-brain barrier, unlike water-soluble statins such as rosuvastatin (Crestor) and pravastatin (Pravachol). The drugs may decrease inflammation and even modify dopamine pathways in the brain, which are linked to Parkinson's, the study authors suggested.
"We are more glad than surprised to demonstrate the relationship," said study author Dr. Jou-Wei Lin, a cardiologist at National Taiwan University Hospital. "Our analysis is observational . . . and further clinical trials targeting the association between statin use and Parkinson's disease are still needed."
The study is published online July 24 in the journal Neurology.
One in four Americans aged 45 and older takes a statin, according to Harvard Health. The drugs are used to lower cholesterol levels in the liver. In the United States, patients typically take the drugs for life once prescribed. In Taiwan, however, the national health insurance program has requested doctors stop prescribing statins when a patient's cholesterol levels reach the treatment goal.
This Taiwanese policy, set to end on Aug. 1, allowed researchers to evaluate any potential difference in Parkinson's risk in people who stopped statin use compared to those who continued taking the drug, Lin said. Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological condition resulting in movement problems such as stiffness, tremors and slurred speech.
Prior research examining the link between statin use and Parkinson's disease showed inconsistent results. The new study, which took place from 2001 to 2008 on statin patients free of Parkinson's disease, also showed that participants taking water-soluble statins developed Parkinson's at about twice the rate as those taking fat-soluble statins.
Dr. Michael Okun, national medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation in Miami, said the findings were "intriguing but not surprising" in light of recent interest in lipid-lowering drugs to reduce Parkinson's risk. But Okun said caution should be exercised in interpreting the study's results.
"In general, these types of population studies should not be used to make large-scale changes in the practice of medicine because they are prone to error," said Okun, also author of Parkinson's Treatment: 10 Secrets to a Happier Life.
However, he added, given the findings, those at risk for developing Parkinson's "may elect to take a [fat-soluble] statin for the potential hope of delaying the appearance of Parkinson's disease symptoms." Family history of Parkinson's is thought to raise risk for the disorder.
"Additionally, if you're on one of these types of statin drugs, it may be advisable not to stop it," Okun added. "People who already have the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease should be aware that there is no proven benefit to starting one of these drugs after diagnosis."