Using mathematical models, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford set out to test how the 150-year-old proverb "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" might compare with the more widespread use of statins, a cholesterol lowering medication, in the British population.
Lead researcher Dr. Adam Briggs of the BHF Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University and colleagues analyzed the effect on the most common causes of vascular mortality of prescribing either a statin a day to those not already taking one or an apple a day to everyone age 50 and older.
Using mathematical models, the researchers calculated that prescribing an apple a day to all adults age 50 and older in Britain would prevent about 8,500 deaths from heart attacks and strokes every year.
The researchers said this is similar to the 9,400 fewer heart deaths estimated if everyone age 50 and older who was not already taking them was given statins.
"The Victorians had it about right when they came up with their brilliantly clear and simple public health advice: 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away,'" Briggs said in a statement.
"It just shows how effective small changes in diet can be, and that both drugs and healthier living can make a real difference in preventing heart disease and stroke."
Although apples are more expensive than statins -- the medication cost 16 cents each -- the researchers conclude an apple a day was able to match the more widespread use of statins.
However, there are side-effects from statins. The study found if statins were prescribed to everyone age 50 and older it would likely lead to more than 1,000 extra cases of muscle disease and more than 10,000 extra diagnoses of diabetes, the researchers said.
The researchers stressed no one currently taking statins because they are at risk of heart disease should stop, but "by all means eat more apples."
The findings were published in the British Medical Journal.