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New findings show some heart patients can gain significant benefit from early, intensive treatment with cholesterol lowering drugs.
The clinical trial involved more than four thousand patients who were hospitalized following a heart attack or for severe chest pain.
The patients were randomly assigned to get one of two statins: A high dose of Lipitor or a moderate dose of Pravachol
Federal guidelines recommend bringing a heart attack patient's bad cholesterol or LDL down to below one hundred.
Here, Pravachol dropped LDL levels to ninety five.
Lipitor dropped LDL levels even further, to just sixty-two.
And the lower cholesterol made a significant difference.
After two years of followup, the patients on Lipitor were less likely to suffer a new heart attack, or undergo bypass surgery or angioplasty.
Christopher P. Cannon, M.D./ Lead Researcher: "The most important lesson from the study is that a patient who was just hospitalized with acute coronary syndrome will benefit from early and agressive, intensive statin therapy."
But does that mean everyone, including healthy people, should take statins -and drop their bad cholesterol to super low levels?
Dr. Judith Walsh of UCSF specializes in women's health and disease prevention. She would not give statins to low risk women.
Dr. Walsh: "Starting a woman who is 30 on medication to prevent a heart attack that may potentially occur at 70 or 75. Does it make sense to treat someone for 40 years? At this point it probably doesn't."
"We just don't know what the long-term effects are for a drug that a woman would have to take many, many years."
Researchers say their findings should encourage all healthy people to get their cholesterol checked. If their levels are high, consider other things as well, such as regular exercise, eating well, not smoking, and losing weight.
It's important to note that all drugs carry side effects.
The more powerful statins such as Lipitor also carry a slightly higher risk of side effects.
They are also more expensive. A year's supply costs about $1500.