London A cholesterol-lowering drug taken by millions to prevent heart attacks might also protect women from having osteoporosis-linked bone fractures, offering a safe alternative to hormone replacement therapy.
New research, published this week in The Lancet medical journal, shows that women over 60 who took the statin cholesterol drugs for at least a year had half the risk of breaking bones.
Hormone replacement therapy, taken by post-menopausal women partly to head off osteoporosis, has also been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. But it also increases the risk of breast cancer.
Statins marketed in the United States as Mevacor, Zocor, Lipitor, Lescol and Pravachol have been around for years and have a long safety record. They can sometimes cause reversible minor injury to the liver or, rarely, muscle inflammation.
While current osteoporosis drugs slow bone erosion, previous studies investigating statins have indicated they might restore bone lost to the disease.
"This is a big step and an important step," said Douglas Bauer, a professor of medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California in San Francisco, who was not connected with the study.
"It basically confirms highly suggestive evidence found in the lab. It's encouraging enough to prompt large studies to see if statins really prevent fractures."
"Three to five years from now, we could well be prescribing women statins instead of estrogens," said Bauer, who has done similar research. "This could really be applicable to a huge number of women."
Osteoporosis, also known as brittle-bone disease, affects about one in three women and about one in 10 men. It gradually weakens bones and often leads to painful and crippling fractures.
About 20 percent of people who suffer hip fractures die within a year because of complications, and many more never return to independent living.
About half of women over 50 have a fracture because of osteoporosis sometime during their lives.