Giving cholesterol-lowering drugs to help patients avoid heart problems saves the NHS millions of pounds each year, a Scottish study shows.
Researchers at Glasgow University found that for every 1,000 people given a daily dose of statins, the health service saved more than £700,000 due to fewer heart attacks and hospital admissions.
Experts said the findings showed the drugs not only saved lives, but were good value for money as well, even when given to patients at a low risk of suffering heart problems. They suggested even more people should now be treated with statins.
Statins are widely prescribed to people who have had heart attacks or strokes to prevent further problems, but can also be given to stop these conditions in patients who have not yet suffered ill-health.
The NHS estimates that statins save around 7,000 lives each year in the UK, costing between £30 and £40 per patient annually. But some critics have questioned whether the drugs should be used in large groups of healthy people, labelling it mass medication, while others have asked whether it is worth the expense.
However, the latest study from the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at Glasgow University found that widespread use of statins did appear to have both health and financial benefits.
The study, published in the European Heart Journal, used NHS statistics to follow 6,595 men from the west of Scotland who were aged 45-64 years at the start of the study and had high levels of cholesterol but no history of a heart attack.
Half of the group were given the drug pravastatin and half a placebo over five years, and all the men were followed up for at least 15 years.
The researchers said this was the first time the cost-effectiveness of statins has been assessed in this way.
They found that for every 1,000 patients who received a 40mg dose of the drug once a day for five years, the NHS saved £710,000, after taking into account the cost of the drug and safety monitoring.
The results also revealed that for every 1,000 patients treated, there were 163 fewer hospital admissions, saving 1,836 days in hospital with fewer admissions for heart attacks, stroke and coronary operations.
There was also a 43 per cent reduction in heart failure admissions to hospital during the 15-year period studied.
Dr Andrew Walker, health economist at the Robertson Centre, added: “The results from this study are clear – treatment with a statin in middle age saves lives and frees NHS beds for others.”
Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland chief executive David Clark said: “Heart attacks and strokes are devastating conditions, not just for the patients directly affected, but also for their families.
“No-one enjoys taking drugs, but it is worth it if, as this study shows, medication can reduce the risk of being hit by one of these traumatic events.”