Do statins ease the risk of dementia?

Alzheimer's risk could be reduced by statins, said the newspapers. Tom Ireland investigates.

What is the story?
Statins might guard against the onset of Alzheimer's, according to media reports. Over 450,000 people suffer from Alzheimer's in the UK.

Patients taking the drugs to prevent strokes or treat heart disease could reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer's by as much as 80 per cent.

In a US study, the brains of those who had taken statins contained less of the protein tangles which indicate Alzheimer's.

What is the research?
For the study, US researchers analysed the brains of a random population sample of 110 Americans who had died aged between 65 and 79.

Brain tissue specimens were taken from the group, 33 of whom were statin users, who had no brain conditions and were cognitively normal when they registered.

The researchers searched for the presence of two changes in brain tissue symptomatic of Alzheimer's - amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Both are abnormal protein deposits used to identify the condition after death.

The researchers found significantly fewer neurofibrillary protein tangles in the brain tissue of those who had taken statins compared with those who had not taken statins, after controlling for variables such as age at death and strokes in the brain.

The study was part of the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) project, which held reliable pharmacy records for each brain donor and sampled a community population.

The statins involved in the study included atorvastatin (Lipitor), lovastatin (Mevacor), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor).

What do the researchers say?
Co-author Dr Eric Larson, of the University of Washington, admits the trial has its limitations. 'To prove statins work to prevent Alzheimer's is going to take a lot of work using randomised trials. I personally think it would be impossible to design a definitive test.

'The most important finding was that we managed to correlate a drug exposure in life with pathological changes in the brain.'

Dr Larson added that although the research could be a way of encouraging reluctant patients to take statins, there is no reason yet to prescribe for dementia.

'There is some evidence that they can benefit your brain, but statins as a treatment for dementia are a long way off.

'Regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle is at least as potent in preventing dementia,' he added.

What do the experts say?
Dr Clive Ballard, director of research at the Alzheimer's Society, warns that although the research shows potential, it is hard to prove Alzheimer's is prevented by the use of statins.

'There is potential bias in an autopsy sample. The people prescribed statins would also have been given other treatments and lifestyle changes, like a low-fat diet or exercise programme.

'It is hard to guarantee that it is the statins causing this effect.'

Dr Ballard adds: 'It is consistent with previous trials. It suggests statins have a role in removing amyloid protein from the brain.'

But statins are not ready to be used as a treatment for Alzheimer's without further research, said Dr Ballard.

'These trials do not necessarily identify treatments for Alzheimer's.'

INFORMING PATIENTS

  • Fewer protein tangles were found in statin users compared to non-statin users.
  • Further research is required to show that statins can be used as a preventive drug for Alzheimer's.
  • Patients should be advised to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

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