DALLAS, July 20 -- Cholesterol-lowering drugs may have anti-inflammatory effects that increase their potential to reduce a person's risk of heart disease, according to a report in today's Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.
High blood cholesterol levels and inflammation both may contribute to the fundamental process driving atherosclerosis, fatty deposits that may block blood vessels. Atherosclerosis is the underlying cause of heart attacks or stroke.
The study's lead author, Paul Ridker, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, says, "Our data support an important new biological target for reducing heart attack risk."
In their study, researchers tested pravastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug, for its ability to reduce C-reactive protein (CRP), which is elevated during inflammation.
"We have known for some time that elevated C-reactive protein, a chemical marker for inflammation, is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. What we didn't know was CRP could be lowered with cholesterol-lowering drugs."
The study followed 472 heart attack patients randomly chosen to receive either a cholesterol-lowering drug or a placebo (a dummy pill with no effect.) The researchers used a high sensitivity test to measure blood levels of CRP at baseline and after five years.
While CRP levels tended to increase in the placebo group, the drug-treated group had significant reductions in CRP levels. After five years, CRP levels among those taking the drug were almost 38 percent lower than the placebo group's, the researchers report.
The changes seem unrelated to any decline in cholesterol levels. Even when patients in the placebo group were able to lower their low-density lipoprotein -- the so-called 'bad' component of total cholesterol -- through diet and exercise, CRP increased over time.