Statins are typically used to lower blood cholesterol levels by blocking a chemical in the liver necessary for making cholesterol. But new research presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology suggests patients in late stages of cancer or other terminal illnesses may extend their lives by discontinuing use of statins.

The researchers, from the University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center and the Palliative Care Research Cooperative Group, say their findings address the question of when it is beneficial for terminally ill patients to discontinue medications for other conditions that will not cause their death.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research.

Lead investigator Dr. Jean Kutner, of the CU Cancer Center and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, speaks of drugs taken to prevent conditions such as osteoporosis, blood clots, high blood pressure and diabetes:

“These are things people take to prevent something or treat a chronic illness. But particularly in the advanced cancer population, they may not be achieving the intended benefits.”

To investigate, the team enrolled 381 patients who had a high likelihood of dying within a year. The participants had all been taking statins for at least 3 months, but for the study, half were randomized to continue taking statins, while the other half were told to discontinue use.

For up to 1 year, the researchers followed the patients in order to monitor their survival, cardiovascular events and any changes in quality of life.

The team found that of the 192 patients who continued taking statins, their median survival was 190 days, whereas the 192 patients who stopped taking them had a median survival of 229 days.

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The researchers found that terminally ill patients who stopped taking statins lived longer and reported a better quality of life, compared with those who continued taking the drug.

Additionally, the patients who stopped taking statins reported a better quality of life, especially in terms of psychological well-being, and they saved $716 per person during the study period for name-brand drugs and $629 for generics.

Dr. Kutner says that, based on their findings, she would advise that patients who are on medications “for primary or secondary prevention – for example, those who have not just had a stroke or heart attack – and have a limited life expectancy of less than 1 year” should discuss the possibility of stopping statins with their physicians.

After using US population estimates, she and her team estimate that as much as $603 million could be saved each year if patients who have a late-stage fatal illness stop taking statins.

During the study, the researchers heard clinicians say that they had “never thought about stopping people’s statins,” Dr. Kutner notes, adding that their research raised awareness.

She continues:

”We tend to be so focused on which medications are effective to start but there’s no research on if and when to stop them. It’s a new line of investigation. Especially in the context of end-of-life care, we believe there are many situations in which preventative drugs may be doing more harm than good.”

Dr. Kutner says their study sheds light on “a setting in which these drugs may not be doing most patients any good anymore, and bringing up the subject of stopping unneeded medications offers the opportunity for shared decision-making.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested the cardiovascular benefits of using statins largely outweigh the risks.

Meanwhile, a recent study suggested statins could be effective in fighting the hantavirus, which can lead to a fatal respiratory syndrome.