Falls in blood pressure and cholesterol levels prevented more than 20,000 deaths in England from 2000-2007, researchers found.
Statins prolonged the lives of 14% of these people – but the majority of the deaths were prevented by population-wide changes in health.
Recent changes to NICE guidance means that GPs must now prescribe statins to anyone who has a 10% chance of developing heart disease within 10 years.
But researchers from the University of Liverpool found that ‘changes in risk factors at the population level’ were responsible for most deaths from heart disease.
‘In the UK, the population-wide fall in blood pressure is consistent with the recent successful implementation of policies to reduce salt intake,’ they wrote in BMJ Open. ‘However, policies to reduce saturated fats and trans-fats have so far been neglected in the UK.’
The researchers also looked at how socioeconomic background affected the risk of death from heart disease. People who were affluent were found to benefit most from statins, but the most deprived people – who typically have more risk factors for heart problems – received greatest benefit from population-wide improvements to health.
‘Targeting high-risk individuals with medication appears less effective and may also widen socioeconomic inequalities in [coronary heart disease] mortality,’ the authors said.
‘Our results strengthen the case for greater emphasis on preventive approaches, particularly population-based policies to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol,’ they wrote.