Statin drugs to lower so-called "bad" LDL-C cholesterol are among the most frequently prescribed medications today. Over 200 million people around the world are taking them for their heart health. But new research calls into question whether statins are really as effective as previously thought when it comes to preventing heart attacks, strokes and death from cardiovascular disease.

The study, conducted at RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) University of Medicine and Health in Dublin, looked at how well statins worked when they were prescribed for lowering LDL-C cholesterol with the intent of reducing the risk cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that statins had an inconsistent and inconclusive impact on heart health.

“[O]ur research indicates that, in reality, the benefits of taking statins are varied and can be quite modest.”

The team came to this conclusion after reviewing data from 21 relevant clinical trials that involved over 140,000 participants. This process is known as a meta-analysis and gives researchers a way of considering an issue in a very broad way. The RCSI team posed two questions:

  • Is it best to lower LDL cholesterol as much as possible in order to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke or premature death?
  • How do the benefits of statins compare when it comes to reducing these cardiac events?

In answer to the first question, the scientists found a weak and inconsistent connection between the degree of reducing LDL cholesterol from taking statins and an individual’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke, or dying during the trial period. In some trials, reducing LDL cholesterol was associated with the risk of dying, while in others, reducing the LDL level of cholesterol did not lower the risk.

When it came to the second question, the researchers found that the absolute risk reduction of dying, having a heart attack or stroke while taking statins was unimpressive. For example, the absolute risk reduction of dying while on statins was only 0.8 percent, for heart attack 1.3 percent and 0.4 percent for strokes.

“The message has long been that lowering your cholesterol will reduce your risk of heart disease, and that statins help to achieve this,” the lead author of the analysis, Paula Byrne, said in a statement. “However, our research indicates that, in reality, the benefits of taking statins are varied and can be quite modest.” The authors recommend that medical professionals communicate this updated information to their patients.

The analysis showed that when it came to reducing the risk of dying, having a heart attack or stroke, statins’ record was unimpressive.

Meanwhile, there are other ways to help protect yourself from developing cardiac issues according to the American Heart Association. Here are a few of their suggestions:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen, canned, and/or dried fruits and vegetables are all acceptable.
  • Choose foods made mostly with whole grains rather than refined grains.
  • Pick plant proteins like legumes and nuts. Higher nut intake was associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke.
  • Keep your intake of beverages and foods with added sugars low. Added sugars have consistently been associated with elevated risk of type 2 diabetes, CHD and excess body weight.
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. There is a direct, positive relationship between salt intake and blood pressure. Leading sources of salt are packaged/processed foods and foods prepared outside the home.
  • Limit alcohol intake if you drink. The risk of atrial fibrillation and of hemorrhagic stroke increases with increased alcohol intake.

The study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.