Millions of people currently take cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins in hopes of reducing their risk of heart attack or death. But a new study shows that statins may also help reduce the risk of death after a heart attack has already occurred.

Researchers found treatment with a statin within the first 24 hours after a heart attack reduced the risk of death while still in the hospital by more than 50 percent.

"We were surprised that early statin therapy showed such a striking effect immediately after a heart attack," says researcher Gregg C. Fonarow, MD, professor of cardiology at UCLA, in a news release.

"We also found that statins provided additional protection from other heart attack complications as well."

Fonarow says studies have shown that long-term use of statins is beneficial in reducing the risk of heart disease, but this study provides the strongest evidence to date that statins may help the heart immediately after a heart attack as well.

The results of the study appear in the Sept. 1 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology.

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Statins May Help After Heart Attack

In the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 170,000 people who were admitted to a hospital due to heart attack from a national registry.

They compared the risk of death or other complications following heart attack among people who had been treated with statins before the heart attack, those who received statins within 24 hours after heart attack, and those who did not receive statins or who had discontinued use at the time of hospitalization.

The results showed that people who had been previously treated with statins and then received another dose immediately following their heart attack had a 54 percent lower risk of dying while still in the hospital compared with heart attack patients not on statin therapy.

People who were not taking statins at the time of heart attack but were started on the drugs within 24 hours of hospitalization had a 58 percent lower risk of in-hospital death compared with those not given statins.

Researchers also found that early statin use was associated with a lower risk of other complications following a heart attack, such as cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating).

Fonarow says statins work by increasing the flow of chemicals within the cardiovascular system, which may help reduce help reduce damage to the cells caused by a heart attack.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Fonarow, G. American Journal of Cardiology, Sept. 1, 2005; vol 96: pp 611-616. News release, University of California, Los Angeles.