Reducing high blood cholesterol, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) events in people with and without a past history of coronary heart disease (CHD) is an important goal of pharmacotherapy. Statins are the first-choice agents. Previous reviews of the effects of statins have highlighted their benefits in people with coronary artery disease. The case for primary prevention, however, is less clear.
To assess the effects, both harms and benefits, of statins in people with no history of CVD.
To avoid duplication of effort, we checked reference lists of previous systematic reviews. We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (Issue 1, 2007), MEDLINE (2001 to March 2007) and EMBASE (2003 to March 2007). There were no language restrictions.
Randomised controlled trials of statins with minimum duration of one year and follow-up of six months, in adults with no restrictions on their total low density lipoprotein (LDL) or high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels, and where 10% or less had a history of CVD, were included.
Data collection and analysis
Two authors independently selected studies for inclusion and extracted data. Outcomes included all cause mortality, fatal and non-fatal CHD, CVD and stroke events, combined endpoints (fatal and non-fatal CHD, CVD and stroke events), change in blood total cholesterol concentration, revascularisation, adverse events, quality of life and costs. Relative risk (RR) was calculated for dichotomous data, and for continuous data pooled weighted mean differences (with 95% confidence intervals) were calculated.
Fourteen randomised control trials (16 trial arms; 34,272 participants) were included. Eleven trials recruited patients with specific conditions (raised lipids, diabetes, hypertension, microalbuminuria). All-cause mortality was reduced by statins (RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.73 to 0.96) as was combined fatal and non-fatal CVD endpoints (RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.61 to 0.79). Benefits were also seen in the reduction of revascularisation rates (RR 0.66, 95% CI 0.53 to 0.83). Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were reduced in all trials but there was evidence of heterogeneity of effects. There was no clear evidence of any significant harm caused by statin prescription or of effects on patient quality of life.
Reductions in all-cause mortality, major vascular events and revascularisations were found with no excess of cancers or muscle pain among people without evidence of cardiovascular disease treated with statins. Other potential adverse events were not reported and some trials included people with cardiovascular disease. Only limited evidence showed that primary prevention with statins may be cost effective and improve patient quality of life. Caution should be taken in prescribing statins for primary prevention among people at low cardiovascular risk.