March 20 (HealthDay News) -- Cholesterol-lowering statins could cut the risk of heart attacks in as many as 6.5 million Americans who have low cholesterol but high levels of a blood marker for inflammation, researchers report.
Statins are known to prevent subsequent heart attacks and strokes in patients who've already suffered one of these cardiovascular events, and the drugs also protect people who haven't had a heart attack or stroke but are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease due to factors such as high cholesterol or diabetes.
Based on these guidelines, about 33 million older adults are eligible to take statins, according to background information in a news release about the study.
However, about half of all cardiovascular events occur in people who don't have high cholesterol, and about 20 percent of such events occur in people with no identifiable cardiovascular disease risk factors, noted Dr. Erin D. Michos, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart and Vascular Institute.
A study published last year found statins protect against heart attack and strokes in older adults with low cholesterol but with high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker for inflammation.
To determine how many Americans with low cholesterol (below 130 mg/dl) and high CRP levels would benefit from taking statins, Michos and Hopkins cardiology professor Dr. Roger S. Blumenthal analyzed 1999 to 2004 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
They concluded that 6.5 million older adults with low cholesterol and high CRP might benefit from taking statins. That number would increase to 10 million people if the cholesterol level cutoff was 160 mg/dl, the point at which many doctors decide to prescribe statins.
"We're showing that doctors may be able to prevent thousands of heart attacks, strokes and deaths each year if we expand statin-prescribing criteria to include C-reactive protein levels, something we can assess as part of a simple blood test," Michos said in the Hopkins news release.
Using these new criteria to prescribe statins to older adults could prevent about 260,000 cardiovascular events over five years, the researchers said.
The study was published in the March 17 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
SOURCE: Johns Hopkins Medicine, news release, March 18, 2009