Millions of people taking statin drugs to lower their cholesterol may get an unanticipated benefit: They may be less likely to develop movement and balance problems like those seen in Parkinson's disease, a new study suggests.
The study looked at the relationship between statin use and parkinsonism.
People with parkinsonism have some of the symptoms seen in Parkinson's disease -- including slowed movement, stiff muscles and difficulty walking and maintaining balance. But the underlying causes vary.
Researchers found that among more than 2,800 elderly adults they followed, half developed symptoms of parkinsonism over six years. But that risk was 16% lower among those using statins.
The findings were published online Wednesday in Neurology. They do not prove that statins directly lower the risk of parkinsonism, said lead researcher Dr. Shahram Oveisgharan, of Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago.
But, he added, his team was also able to study autopsied brain tissue from participants who died during the study period.
It turned out that those who'd used statins were 37% less likely to have atherosclerosis -- a buildup of artery-clogging "plaques" -- in their brains. And that partly explained the relationship between statin use and lower parkinsonism risk.
The risk reduction tied to statins was "modest," said James Beck, chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Parkinson's Foundation.
But he called the study design "strong," and said there is reason to believe statins could make a difference in parkinsonism risk. There are different forms of the condition, including what's known as vascular parkinsonism. It's believed that those symptoms arise after small strokes (areas of blocked blood flow) damage movement-related areas of the brain.
"This is where statins might come into play," Beck said.
The findings are based on 2,841 elderly adults who were 76 years old, on average, at the outset. Over the next six years, 45% of statin users developed parkinsonism, versus 53% of non-users.
Parkinsonism was defined as having, at least to a mild degree, two or more "parkinsonian signs," including slowed movement, tremor, rigid muscles or gait problems.
The researchers weighed other factors, to see if they accounted for the statin-parkinsonism connection -- including whether participants had high blood pressure or diabetes, smoked or got regular exercise.
Even then, statin use itself was tied to a 16% lower risk of parkinsonism, the investigators found.
Some study participants were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. But Oveisgharan said there was no link between statin use and Parkinson's-related brain abnormalities -- only atherosclerosis in the brain.
That might help explain why some past studies have failed to show a connection between statins and a lower risk of Parkinson's disease, according to Oveisgharan.
Unlike Parkinson's disease, which is uncommon, milder parkinsonian signs are quite common among the elderly, he said. The current findings support the notion that blood vessel disease in the brain contributes to those problems.
That does not mean all elderly adults should be put on statins, Oveisgharan and Beck stressed. For one thing, statins can have side effects, like muscle pain.
But with more research, Oveisgharan said, statins could become an option for reducing the effects of parkinsonism in older adults -- and not only those with high cholesterol.
For now, there are situations where a statin could be considered, according to Oveisgharan: If an older adult has parkinsonism symptoms, but Parkinson's disease does not appear to be the cause, a brain scan could be done to look for blood vessel disease. If it's there, a statin might be warranted.
Beck pointed to the bigger picture. "Brain health matters," he said. "And what goes along with brain health is overall health."
So, Beck said, steps like following a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels help support general brain health as you age.
The study was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The researchers report no financial conflicts of interest.
The Parkinson's Foundation has more on parkinsonism.
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