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Do Statins Prevent Alzheimer's Disease?

Perhaps, But Don't Get Too Excited Yet

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Updated September 06, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

By DrRich

Elderly patients who took statins before they died had less evidence of Alzheimer's disease on autopsy than patients who did not take statins, according to a report published in the August 2007 journal issue of Neurology.

Statin drugs have long been used to help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Because of animal research suggesting that statins may help ward off certain kinds of brain conditions, these drugs are now being studied to see if they might have any effect on Alzheimer's disease in humans.

The 2007 published research is based on a group of elderly patients who were among 2,500 people enrolled in the Adult Changes in Thought Study, started more than a decade ago. As part of the study, some patients gave permission for their brains to be examined when they died.

As a result, the researchers eventually performed autopsies on 110 brains. They found that changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer's disease were less common in the 36 patients who had taken statins than in the 74 who had not taken statins. In their report, the researchers suggest that the use of statins might delay the onset or the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

DrRich Comments:

The question of whether statins might delay or prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease is an old one. Several lines of evidence from animal studies suggest that statins might be able to delay some of the structural changes in the brain that are thought to be behind Alzheimer's disease. However, the results of large observational clinical studies in humans have been mixed, so there currently is very little clinical evidence that patients taking statins have less Alzheimer's than those who are not.

Where does this new study fit in? The authors emphasize that this is the first study to show an association between a reduction in the actual brain disease of Alzheimer's disease and the use of statins. But keep in mind that this was an uncontrolled study: It may be that statins help prevent Alzheimer's disease. But it is also possible that doctors are simply less likely to recommend statin therapy in elderly patients who show obvious signs of clinical dementia. (Their reasoning might be to avoid the expense and potential side effects of drugs aimed at reducing the long-term risk of heart disease in patients who may already have greatly diminished chances of survival.)

That is, while there may be an association between statin use and a reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease, there may not be a cause-and-effect relationship.

A more definitive answer depends on the results of randomized, prospective clinical trials examining the possibility that statins are useful in preventing or slowing Alzheimer disease. At least three such trials are ongoing. At present, attempting to prevent Alzheimer's disease is not a reason to ask your doctor for statin drugs.

Sources:

Li G, Larson EB, Sonnen Ja, et al. Statin therapy is associated with reduced neuropathologic changes of Alzheimer disease. Neurology 2007;69:878-885.

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