Researchers from the University of Glasgow divided 5,804 men and women ages 70 to 82 into two groups. Half were given 40 milligrams a day of pravastatin for three years. The rest took a placebo.
All the people in the study had a history of heart disease or were at high risk of developing heart disease because of diabetes, smoking, or hypertension.
At the end of the research, the group taking pravastatin had a 15 percent reduction in the incidence of heart disease and heart attacks compared to the group on the placebo, according to the study, which is published in tomorrow's issue of The Lancet. Those on the drug saw their bad cholesterol levels fall 34 percent, and the overall death rate was 20 percent lower in the pravastatin group.
"The study provides clear evidence that, as in middle-aged people, statin therapy in elderly individuals reduces the risk of coronary disease," wrote the authors.
The study was funded by Bristol-Myers Squibb, which makes pravastatin under the brand name Pravachol. The authors say the company had no role in the research or writing of the report.
Statins are a class of drugs that are known to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or "bad" cholesterol.
Most previous research on statins has been in middle-age men and women, said Dr. Dan Fisher, a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center. As a result, doctors are typically very hesitant to prescribe statins to older people because little was known about what effect they might have, Fisher added.
"The biggest reason for the caution was a fear of side effects and intolerability in the elderly," Fisher said. "And there was a lack of research showing the benefits in older patients."
This new study makes him more confident of statin safety and effectiveness, Fisher said. "The study isn't perfect, but it's good evidence showing a benefit of pravastatin in the elderly population."
Still, some previously touted benefits of statins didn't pan out in the study.
Earlier research had shown that statins can reduce the incidence of stroke, but the Scottish study found no such evidence. However, the incidence of "mini-strokes" was 25 percent lower.
The authors did note that the study lasted only three years. Previous research that found a reduction in stroke had lasted five years.
"Maybe they would have seen a difference if they'd followed the patients a few years longer," Fisher said.
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