Cholesterol Drugs May Lower Alzheimer’s Risk: Study

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Cholesterol-busting drugs known as statins may also protect patients from developing Alzheimer’s disease, says a new study in JAMA Neurology.

Researchers assessed statin use among nearly 400,000 Medicare patients and found a significant reduction in the risk of acquiring the severe form of dementia – a 15 percent lower disease rate in women and a 12 percent reduction in men among regular statin users.

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People who took statins infrequently did not see a similar reduced dementia risk.

Lipitor, a statin drug manufactured by Pfizer

“We may not need to wait for a cure to make a difference for patients currently at risk of the disease. Existing drugs, alone or in combination, may affect Alzheimer’s risk,” said the study’s lead author Julie Zissimopoulos, associate director of the University of Southern California’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics.

Previous studies have linked high cholesterol with Alzheimer’s disease markers known as beta-amyloid plaques, which affect brain functioning. That gave the researchers a key starting point. “We looked to statins as a candidate because they are widely used and have resulted in the reduction of cholesterol,” said Zissimopoulos.

Currently, no cure exists for Alzheimer’s, which affects more than 5 million Americans and is considered one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.

Nearly All Groups Benefited From Statin Use

The researchers studied the benefit of statin use among different ethnicities and found that women saw a reduced risk of dementia across the board when taking the drugs routinely. For example, women on simvastatin (brand name Zocor) had significant reductions in incidence rate, including a 22 percent reduced risk among black women; 18 percent reduction among Hispanic women; and 14 percent reduction among white women.

Hispanic men taking simvastatin saw a 33 percent reduced risk of dementia, and white men saw a 10 percent decline, according to the study. Researchers found similar benefits among those who regularly took other statin brands, including atorvastatin (Lipitor) and pravastatin (Pravachol).

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“We generally found that they’re all associated with reduced risk,” Zissimopoulos said. However, the researchers noted that some statins were more powerful at preventing Alzheimer’s for some groups than others.

White women taking pravastatin saw an 18 percent reduced risk, compared to the 14 percent for those taking simvastatin.

“Beta-amyloid continues to be a therapeutic target; however, once a patient is symptomatic and has the plaques, it may be too late,” said Zissimopoulos. “Some researchers believe successful treatment may involve a ‘cocktail’ of several medications aimed at multiple targets.”

The researchers noted that they didn’t find statistically significant benefits among black men, but they attribute the lack of findings to a small sample – less than two percent of the study participants were black males.

Given the unique effects of particular statins on specific patient groups, future treatment options may take the shape of personalized medicine, note the researchers.

Because statins may affect Alzheimer disease risk, physicians should consider which statin is prescribed to each patient,” notes the study.

That’s especially relevant for ethnic minorities, because “people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds face a high burden” due to elevated Alzheimer’s incidence rates.

“The right type of statin, for the right person, at the right time may provide an inexpensive means to decrease the burden” of Alzheimer’s, concludes the study.

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.