We all know the saying, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." And this may prove true after new research suggests that eating an apple once a day may be just as beneficial as daily statin use when it comes to preventing vascular deaths in individuals over the age of 50. This is according to a study published in the BMJ.

Researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK say that in order to prevent heart disease, lifestyle changes are the first port of call.

But they also say previous research suggests that the use of statins may reduce the risk of vascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, regardless of a person's underlying risk of cardiovascular disease.

Statins are a class of drugs used to lower cholesterol. They are widely used for the prevention of recurrent heart disease or stroke.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that the benefits of statin use outweigh the risks associated with high cholesterol.

The investigators note that with so much supporting evidence for the use of statins, particularly in those aged over 50, medical professionals in the UK are calling for more widespread use of the drug.

Statins vs. apples

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Researchers say eating an apple a day could reduce the annual number of vascular deaths in the UK by 8,500, while daily statin use could reduce the number of deaths by 9,400.

Taking these factors into consideration, the investigators decided to see how widespread use of statins would impact the rate of vascular mortality in the over-50 UK population, and they compared this with the effects of apple consumption.

They used a mathematical model to estimate the number of annual vascular deaths that would be reduced if the total over-50 UK population were prescribed either a statin - if not already taking them - or an apple once a day.

The investigators based their estimates on a 70% adherence and assumed that the population's overall calorie intake would be maintained.

They estimated that approximately 5.2 million people in the UK are eligible for treatment with statins, and that 17.6 million people who are currently not using the drugs would be offered them as a form of treatment if they were recommended as primary treatment for those aged over 50.

Both 'reduce vascular mortality'

From their calculations, they found that if 17.6 million people in the UK took a statin a day, this would reduce the number of vascular deaths by 9,400. If the whole over-50 UK population (22 million) ate an apple a day, this could reduce the annual number of vascular deaths by 8,500.

But the researchers took into account the side effects of statin use, stating that prescribing a statin to everyone over the age of 50 could lead to over 1,000 extra cases of muscle disease (myopathy) and more than 10,000 additional cases of diabetes.

When applying the mathematic model to the UK population over the age of 30, this revealed a further 3% reduction in the annual number of vascular deaths if individuals were prescribed with either a statin or an apple once a day.

Small changes in diet 'can make a difference'

The investigators say their findings suggest that small dietary changes alongside increased use of statins could significantly reduce vascular mortality in the UK at a population level.

Dr. Adam Briggs, of the British Heart Foundation (BHF) Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University and one of the study authors, says:

"The Victorians had it about right when they came up with their brilliantly clear and simple public health advice: 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away.'

It just shows how effective small changes in diet can be, and that both drugs and healthier living can make a real difference in preventing heart disease and stroke."

"While no one currently prescribed statins should replace them for apples, we could all benefit from simply eating more fruit," he adds.

There are also many other health benefits from eating apples, as reported by Medical News Today earlier this year. Previous research has shown they may reduce the risk of developing cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

But Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the BHF, says although there is no doubt that fruit is good for us, it should not replace vital heart medicines, such as statins.

"This study reiterates that statins save lives. They are one of the safest medicines available and their benefits far outweigh any risks of side effects," she adds. "If you're unsure about your medication, speak to your doctor as there are often different types or doses you could try."

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that adopting a Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke for high-risk individuals.