Although the use of statins for treating people at risk of heart disease has been historically quite controversial, new research suggests that statins may promote heart health by improving the structure, and, as a result, the functioning of this vital organ.

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Statin treatment may improve the structure and functioning of the heart, a new study shows.

Statins are a type of drug commonly used to lower cholesterol levels in people with a higher risk of heart disease.

Although the therapeutic use of statins has been subject to controversy, a new study – presented at EuroCMR, held in Prague in the Czech Republic – suggests that the benefits of statins go beyond their cholesterol-lowering effects.

The lead author of the new research – Dr. Nay Aung, a cardiologist at the William Harvey Research Institute of the Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom – emphasizes the health benefits of statins.

They can improve the function of blood vessels by preventing them from building up additional plaque, as well as reduce inflammation.

Additionally, former studies have shown that they can reduce the thickness of the heart muscle, and recommended them as a beneficial way of treating left ventricular hypertrophy.

However, these studies were primarily carried out in animals, and those in humans were quite small in sample size. Therefore, Dr. Aung and team set out to undertake a larger study to see whether they can confirm the findings.

The study examined the link between statins and the structure and functioning of the heart, looking at 4,622 people with no history of cardiovascular disease. Participants were enrolled in the UK Biobank, a large cohort study.

This health resource contains information on the patients’ use of statins, and the researchers used a questionnaire to ask participants for further information regarding their use of statins.

The researchers used cardiac MRI to measure the volume and mass of the left and right ventricles.

Dr. Aung and colleagues applied multiple regression to the data, adjusting for factors that might have influenced the results – such as body mass index (BMI), ethnicity, race, and gender.

Overall, almost 17 percent of the participants were taking statins. These patients tended to be older, have a higher BMI, higher blood pressure, and diabetes. As Dr. Aung explains, these associations were expected, as statins are usually prescribed to patients with an increased risk of heart disease. A higher body mass, higher blood pressure, and diabetes are all known risk factors for heart disease.

The study revealed that people treated with statins had an overall better structure and functioning of the heart.

Specifically, those using statins had lower odds of developing a thickened heart muscle, or left ventricular hypertrophy, as well as being less likely to have an enlarged heart chamber.

“Having a thick, large heart is a strong predictor of future heart attack, heart failure, or stroke, and taking statins appears to reverse the negative changes in the heart, which, in turn, could lower the risk of adverse outcomes,” explains Dr. Aung.

While this study was observational, Dr. Aung ventures a few possible explanations for how statins might decrease the thickness and volume of the heart. He refers to former studies that have shown the ability of statins to reduce oxidative stress and inhibit the production of factors that drive cell growth.

Oxidative stress is the physiological stress that occurs in the body when free radicals are not properly annihilated by antioxidants. Oxidative stress is associated with aging.

Some studies have also suggested that statins lower the risk of ventricular arrhythmias as a result of their reducing oxidative stress.

“It is important to note that in our study, the people taking statins were at higher risk of having heart problems than those not using statins yet they still had positive heart remodeling compared to the healthier control group,” adds Dr. Aung.

Dr. Aung also addresses the recent debate around who should be prescribed statins:

There are clear guidelines on who should receive statins. There is debate about whether we should lower the bar and the question is when do you stop. What we found is that for patients already taking statins, there are beneficial effects beyond cholesterol lowering and that’s a good thing. But instead of a blanket prescription we need to identify people most likely to benefit – i.e. personalized medicine.

Learn how statins are linked to higher risk of diabetes in older women.