MONDAY, Oct. 23 (HealthDay News) -- The millions of Americans who take cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may have another reason to cheer: These medications may also help boost the lung health of smokers and former smokers.
And a second study reported at the American College of Chest Physicians annual meeting in New Orleans found that these drugs -- which include Lipitor, Pravachol and Zocor -- may also protect people with severely clogged carotid arteries, the main blood vessels to the brain.
The lung study was conducted by a team led by Dr. Walid G. Younis, a pulmonary fellow at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center. It compared the effect of statins on the lung function of 182 current smokers and 303 former smokers. Just 67 of the study participants had normal lung function.
The researchers measured FEV1 -- the amount of air that a person could expel from the lungs in one second.
According to the researchers, the 238 participants who took statins experienced a decline in FEV1 of 2.5 percent over an average follow-up period of 2.7 years, while those who didn't take the drugs saw their levels fall by an average 12.8 percent over the same time period.
In addition, patients with a serious condition called obstructive lung disease saw their need for respiratory-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations fall significantly after taking a statin medication. The benefits of statin therapy were similar for smokers and former smokers.
This protective effect does not seem to be related to lowered cholesterol levels, Younis said. He noted that, "statins work on [reducing] inflammation as well. It has been shown in rheumatology studies that statins reduce inflammation in the airways."
It's possible that statin therapy could slow the progression of lung disease, he said, but "this is the first study to show that, and we need to confirm it with other studies. Right now, we are in the process of planning other studies to corroborate the finding."
Statin therapy for the lungs is not a panacea, however. "They have no effect on preventing a patient from the major smoking-related killer, which is lung cancer," Younnis said. "Smokers should never lose their incentive to quit smoking."
In the second study, researchers found that statins helped keep carotid arteries clear.
A number of studies have shown that statin treatment is effective in a number of ways against a variety of cardiovascular conditions. For example, researchers reported just last month that early, aggressive treatment with statins was beneficial for people who suffered heart attacks or other acute coronary events.
The new report looked at 449 people with a severe narrowing of one or both carotid arteries.
Only 15 percent of the 298 patients treated with statins experienced strokes or heart attacks or died during an average 26 months of follow-up, compared to 68 percent of the 151 patients who did not get the drugs and who were followed for an average of 21 months.
"Research like this, involving these kinds of incidences in these kinds of patients, has not previously been published," said study author Dr. Gautham Ravipati, a fellow at New York Medical College. He said the findings support the notion that "all patients with carotid artery disease and hypercholesterolemia [high cholesterol] should be treated with statins."
Indeed, "the biggest thing for us in this study is the underuse of statins in patients who had hypercholesterolemia," Ravipati said. "It was the most surprising finding."
Statins might even be underused for patients at high risk of stroke or who have already had one and who have what would ordinarily be considered normal levels of cholesterol, he said. "Their total cholesterol might need to be reduced even further," Ravipati said.