How much research is necessary before you would take the leap and take a medication, “preventatively?”
Sometimes research studies that “break” in the news are ones that provide interesting, though not particularly useful results. Single studies, often done with small numbers of patients, simply cannot answer a question about whether a specific treatment works or not. When trying to answer questions about whether a certain treatment works better than another, or even if it works at all, pulling together the results of many different studies provides the best answers to important health questions.
One question that many people recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ask is this: Should I be taking one of the statin drugs? These drugs, an example of which is simvastatin (known by the brand name Zocor®), are approved in the United States for lowering the levels of blood cholesterol. Hundreds of thousands of people take these medicines to treat or prevent heart disease, and there has been increasing interest in their use in preventing or treating Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies have shown that statin drugs may help reduce inflammation and protect brain cells against the amyloid proteins that are widely believed to be involved in causing Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies have shown conflicting results.
Researchers in the United Kingdom recently updated a report which pulls together the results of several studies that evaluated whether or not statin drugs, taken in late-life, can prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The researchers reviewed results of several studies which included more than 26,000 patients. The researchers found that while statin drugs did not seem harmful to mental abilities, the drugs did not significantly impact the number of cases of people who developed Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, nor did it slow progression of the disease upon diagnosis. The researchers concluded that statin drugs given late in life show no effect in preventing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
This news could be viewed in a couple of different ways. In one sense, there should be no expectation that taking a lipid-lowering statin drug will help slow or reverse the course of Alzheimer’s disease in someone who is suspected of or who has been diagnosed with the condition. This should allow patients and their families to pursue other forms of treatment. At the same time, there isn’t enough research available yet to know what the long-term effects of lipid-lowering drugs might be on the development of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias in people who start taking the drugs earlier in their lives. Could these drugs prevent Alzheimer’s disease, if started early enough and in people at risk for developing the disorder? This remains to be seen, but the potential for a relatively safe and low-cost way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease deserves more attention by scientists – and thankfully, work is underway in this area.
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