People over the age of 75 still benefit from taking statins, according to a new study published in the European Heart Journal.

Statins are known to reduce the risk of further problems in patients of any age who have already suffered heart problems or stroke. However, until now it has not been clear how effective their use is in preventing such events occurring in healthy people aged 75 and over, with no previous history of cardiovascular disease.

Now, a nationwide study of 120,173 people in France, who were aged 75 between 2012 and 2014 and had been taking statins continuously for two years, has found those who stopped taking their statins had a 33% increased risk of being admitted to hospital with heart or blood vessel problems during an average follow-up period of 2.4 years.

Researchers analysed data from the French national health insurance claims database and information on hospital diagnoses and clinical procedures. They were able to get comprehensive information on statin use, especially as statins are available by prescription only, for the whole of the French population. They looked specifically at all patients who had turned 75 between 2012 and 2014, who had been taking statins for at least 80% of the time in the previous two years. They included only people with good cardiovascular health in the analysis. They excluded all those who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and anyone who was taking other medications to treat or prevent heart or blood vessel problems.

The researchers followed the 120,173 patients for a maximum of four years (an average of 2.4 years). During this time 14.3% (17,204 people) stopped taking statins for at least three consecutive months, and 4.5% (5,396 people) were admitted to hospital for a cardiovascular problem.

Those who discontinued their statins had a 33% increased risk of any cardiovascular event. The association was stronger for admissions to hospital for heart problems; there was a 46% increased risk of a coronary event, while the increased risk of a blood vessel problem, such as stroke, was 26%.

The researchers stress that this is an observational, retrospective, non-randomised study and therefore cannot show that discontinuing statins can cause a heart attack or stroke, only that it is associated with it. However, they say that extensive health-related patient information was used to improve their estimates of the association and their results are consistent with the known relationship between cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, British Heart Foundation’s medical director, said:

“Old age itself – particularly reaching the age of 75 and above – puts people at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. This risk can be heightened by factors such as high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure, even in those who are otherwise seemingly healthy.

“Concern has been raised about the benefits of statins in older people. This study, although observational, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that statins reduce heart attacks and strokes in older people, as they do in younger people, and are safe.

“Age should not be a barrier to prescribing these potentially life-saving drugs to those people who are likely to benefit.”