FRIDAY, Oct. 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Statin drugs used to lower blood cholesterol also slow the lung function loss that inevitably occurs with age and often is exacerbated by disease or smoking, researchers report.
The Harvard study included a group of more than 800 people who had their lung function measured at least twice between 1995 and 2005.
Those who were taking statins to improve their cholesterol lost lung function at about half the rate of those not using the drugs, the team reported.
"The effect was larger than I thought we would find," said Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and lead author of the study, which was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
In measurements of "FEV1" -- the amount of air a person can expel from the lungs in one second -- statin users lost an average of 10.9 milliliters capacity per year, compared to 23.9 milliliters annually for nonusers.
In a different measure of lung function, called forced vital capacity, statin users lost an average of 14 milliliters per year, while the loss for nonusers averaged 36.2 milliliters annually.
"It has become clear in the last five years that, in addition to lowering cholesterol, statins are potent antioxidants and reduce inflammation," Schwartz said. "Those effects are important in preventing lung function decline."
The results closely traced those of a study reported a year ago by researchers at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center. In that trial, 238 participants who took statins experienced a decline in FEV1 of 2.5 percent over an average follow-up of 2.7 years, compared to a loss averaging 12.8 percent over the same period for those not on the drugs.
That study's lead author, associate professor of medicine Dr. Jean I. Keddissi, believes the benefit stems from statins' anti-inflammatory action.
"Inflammation plays an important role in lung disease, so there is a huge potential for therapy in lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," Keddissi said.
The two trials do not yet provide nearly enough information to warrant routine use of statin therapy for lung disease, however.
"Where you go from here is a controlled clinical trial," Schwartz said. "I would think that a clinical trial doesn't seem like a risky thing, and it would get support. There are a lot of people interested in selling statins."
The potential of statin treatment seems great for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which affects an estimated 20 million Americans, Keddissi said.
"We have no effective treatments for COPD now," Keddissi noted. "Only bronchodilators at the start, and then oxygen."
"I wouldn't put anyone on statins at this point if they had lung disease," Keddissi said. But the Oklahoma group is taking a first step toward the use of these medications for lung trouble. "We are starting some work here in Oklahoma City, studying people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with statins," Keddissi said.
For more on statins, head to the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.