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Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Might Help Prevent Alzheimer's

In one study, use of statin medications halved the risk

MONDAY, July 28, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Older people who were taking cholesterol-busting statin medications saw their risk for dementia fall by half, a new study found.

The finding appears to be more evidence that statins -- which include drugs such as Crestor, Lipitor, Pravachol and Zocor -- can help maintain brain health.

"This is another brick in the wall, in the sense that there is mounting evidence, primarily from observational studies, that there is at least some benefit for prevention of dementia," said lead researcher Mary N. Haan, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Her team published the findings in the July 29 issue of Neurology.

The study involved almost 1,700 Mexican-Americans, aged 60 and older, who were followed for five years. The effort was aimed at people at high risk of developing dementia because of conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Haan said.

In total, 130 participants developed dementia by the end of five years. But the incidence of dementia among the 27 percent of the participants who took statins was half that of those who didn't take the drugs, the researchers found.

The data on the statin-brain health link has been somewhat inconsistent. A study of Catholic clergy reported earlier this year found no reduction of dementia among those taking statins, as did a major study at the University of Washington. But a study led by Dr. Benjamin Wolozin, professor of pharmacology and neurology at Boston University, found that some statin medications did seem to reduce incidence of dementia, while others did not.

However, epidemiological studies can only go so far. According to Haan, the issue will be settled only by a carefully controlled prospective study. "We need a randomized trial, a primary prevention trial," she said.

But the controlled trials that have been done, in the United States and elsewhere, have had mixed results, Wolozin said. Studies in Germany and Arizona suggested a limited benefit, but one done by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed no reduction in dementia, he said.

"Why would the epidemiological studies show one thing, while the clinical trials show another?" he asked. One possibility is that the controlled trials didn't last long enough. "You can't show benefit in a year if you already have it [Alzheimer's disease]," Wolozin said.

Another possibility is that "people who take statins treat themselves differently," taking better care of their bodies and minds, the Boston researcher said.

Wolozin, who noted that he has obtained a patent covering the use of statins for treating Alzheimer's disease, said that, "unfortunately, I don't think the data are strong enough to reach a conclusion."

But that statement applies only to taking statins specifically to prevent dementia, he said. Aside from their known ability to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke, statins have other clinical benefits, such as fighting osteoporosis, Wolozin said.

"The trigger [threshold] for taking a statin should be low, because they are generally helpful medications," he said.

More information

There's more on cholesterol-lowering drugs at the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Mary N. Haan, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor; Benjamin Wolozin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and neurology, Boston University; July 29, 2008, Neurology
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