Researchers have found that statins, a class of drugs widely used for lowering cholesterol, may also slow down the process of human aging, according to a study published online in The FASEB Journal.

Statins are commonly used to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients who are at high risk. They work by blocking the action of an enzyme in the liver that is responsible for making cholesterol.

But now, Italian researchers have discovered that statins could reduce the rate at which telomeres “shorten,” meaning they could potentially be used as an anti-aging therapy.

A telomere is an area of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome, protecting it from deterioration. As a person ages, telomeres are thought to shorten, limiting the number of cells which divide, therefore decreasing a person’s lifespan.

For the study, the researchers conducted an experiment on 203 participants who were divided into two groups. One group was under chronic statin therapy, while the other group did not use statins. Telomerase activity was measured in both of the groups.

The findings showed that the participants who were undergoing statin therapy showed higher levels of telomerase activity in their white blood cells linked to lower levels of telomere shortening, compared with the group who did not use statins.

Giuseppe Paolisso from the Department of Internal Medicine, Surgical, Neurological Metabolic Disease and Geriatric Medicine at Second University of Naples in Italy, says:

By telomerase activation, statins may represent a new molecular switch able to slow down senescent cells in our tissues and be able to lead healthy lifespan extension.”

Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal, points out that although statins significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and are generally safe for most people, they do present side effects, such as muscle injury.

“But if it is confirmed that statins might actually slow aging itself, and not just the symptoms of aging, then statins are much more powerful drugs than we ever thought,” he adds.

The use of statins has been linked to numerous side effects, and previous studies have also shown they may encourage other health problems. Researchers from Canada recently conducted a study, which showed that certain statins may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

However, some would argue that statins are more beneficial to our health. A large US study this year involving 250,000 statins patients suggested that the cardiovascular benefit of statin use outweighs the risk of side effects from the drugs.

A study named The Jupiter Trial also revealed that 54% of heart disease patients had a lower chance of having a heart attack while using statin therapy.

Statins have also showed potential cancer prevention benefits. Research from US scientists found that men who used statins had a reduced risk of mortality from prostate cancer.