Saddled for years with controversy over their side effects, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs are having a moment. Recent studies suggest the medications are safer than once thought and may offer life-extending benefits beyond the cardiovascular system.
Indeed, some research even boasts of their cancer- and coronavirus-fighting abilities.
“Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, already one of the most popular medications worldwide, may become even more widely used as evidence grows of their safety and value to the elderly and their potential benefits beyond the heart and blood vessels,” Jane Brody reports in the New York Times.
She admits that statins remain a dicey approach for anyone over the age of 75, for whom too little cholesterol may be more dangerous than too much. Yet she cites three recent large studies showing that older adults using the drugs were 25 to 34 percent less likely to die during a follow-up period than those who eschewed the medication.
Brody also points to a batch of new research suggesting that lipophilic statins (atorvastatin, simvastatin, lovastatin, and fluvastatin) may mitigate the growth of certain cancers. In one study, early-stage breast-cancer survivors who started a statin regimen within three years of their diagnosis were less likely than statin-averse patients to experience a recurrence of the disease within five years.
Another study reported a 40 percent drop in deaths from ovarian cancer among patients taking a statin either before or after their diagnosis.
And in September 2020, University of California, San Diego scientists released the results of research suggesting that the drug may not only reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 but may even contribute to a quicker recovery. The virus apparently needs cholesterol in order to invade cells; sap the cell membranes from those molecules and you lock out the bug.
To test their theory, the UCSD team analyzed medical records of 170 COVID patients and found that those using statins were about half as likely as statin-free patients to develop serious symptoms. They also tended to recover faster.
None of these breakthrough studies, however, reflects randomized, controlled clinical research. And none of them mentions the dangers the elderly face when mixing statins with other medications — especially heart-rhythm drugs.
Brody acknowledges the risks, citing a 2019 blog post by Brigham and Women’s Hospital cardiovascular specialist Dara Lee Lewis, MD: “The paradox that we face is that as our patients age, they are at increased risk for heart attacks and strokes,” Lewis notes, “and yet they also become more sensitive to medication side effects, so it is a tricky balance.”