Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Also Help the Brain

Risk of severe kind of stroke lessened, say researchers

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Oct. 2, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Researchers in Cincinnati have found more evidence that what's good for your heart is also good for your brain.

Scientists have long noticed that people with low cholesterol seem to have a higher risk of intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH), or bleeding into the brain, the most severe kind of stroke. It is fatal in 40 percent to 50 percent of cases.

The question for the researchers was: Do people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs to lessen their risk of clogged arteries and heart attack have the same risk?

University of Cincinnati researchers compared the medication histories of 190 patients who had suffered ICH and 370 control subjects who had not had this type of stroke. The results, which are being presented today at the American Neurological Association's annual meeting in Chicago, show that cholesterol-lowering drugs did not increase the risk of ICH. What's more, patients on cholesterol-lowering medications seemed to have a lower risk of stroke. "The drugs maintained the relative protective levels of having high cholesterol," says lead study author Dr. Daniel Woo, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

The results back up some previous research and so are not overly surprising, says Dr. Lawrence Brass, spokesman for the National Stroke Association and professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. Nevertheless, he says, "It's reassuring that in actual practice these drugs are as safe as they've appeared in clinical trials, and this is especially important with new, more stringent guidelines for cholesterol."

Previous studies showing similar findings were conducted in specialized settings with the subjects recruited for each study. The latest research looked at "regular" people drawn from an actual medical practice, Brass says.

New cholesterol guidelines, issued earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health, recommend LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels of 100 or less, revised down from 130. "The new guidelines really pushed the limits," says Brass. "Over time people have become more and more reassured about having low cholesterol."

Woo says the apparent protective effect of low cholesterol probably was not due to the cholesterol levels themselves but to whatever condition might underlie them. "I don't think it matters what your overall level of cholesterol is. What matters is the reason you have low cholesterol -- whatever is going on underneath -- and we don't know what that is," he says.

The study didn't specify the kind of cholesterol-lowering drug used, nor did it include actual cholesterol levels. Further research is needed "to confirm our data with actual cholesterol levels and to try to identify the reasons people with high cholesterol may have less risk of ICH," says Woo. "If we can find out that factor, perhaps we can treat people."

What To Do:

If you're worried about your cholesterol, check the National Cholesterol Education Program.

Find out the symptoms of stroke from the National Stroke Association.

The American Heart Association can tell you what your cholesterol readings mean.

SOURCES: Interviews with Daniel Woo, M.D., assistant professor of neurology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine; Lawrence Brass, M.D., spokesman, National Stroke Association, and professor of neurology, Yale Medical School, New Haven, Conn.; Oct. 2, 2001, presentation to American Neurological Association annual meeting in Chicago

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