Health News

Treating strokes with cholesterol drugs

Friday, June 22, 2012

You probably know someone who's taking a statin drug to lower their cholesterol, to try and prevent a stroke or heart attack. But now, the statins are part of treatment, not just prevention.

Statins and another drug, progesterone, have been reported in several recent studies to make survival from strokes and other brain damage events more likely. But the statins have moved into current treatment fastest. Now, if patients are not already taking a statin, one will likely be started if doctors suspect a stroke.

Fifty-three year old Joe Lipton noticed some disturbing symptoms earlier this year while raking his yard.

"The rake, which weighs about five pounds, felt like it weighed 200, and then I noticed numbness in my arm up to the shoulder," he said.

Joe was having a T-I-A, the warning sign of a stroke. Tests at the hospital showed damage to the brain's blood supply. He had an emergency procedure to prevent a stroke. Immediately, doctors gave him a statin drug.

"Within twenty-four hours, I was on Lipitor," Lipton said.

Lipitor and other statins given during the hospital stay for a stroke can improve survival and recovery. Stroke patients already on these drugs had better survivals than if statins were stopped after hospitalization.

All this from pills meant to prevent strokes and heart attacks.

The idea of using these drugs up front when a patient's first having a stroke is a newer concept and makes you wonder what these drugs are doing besides preventing blockages in arteries," Dr. Keith Siller of NYC Langone Medical Center said.

There are certain drugs that treat one condition, but can serve double-duty when helping with another treatment.

Dr. Siller says one thought is that statins not only reduce cholesterol blockages, but can reduce inflammation which can also block the arteries. Other drugs are also being used in unusual ways to protect the brain.

Researchers are studying the female hormone progesterone in traumatic brain injuries. Studies show it can protect brain cells and in one report can cut death rates in half.

Progesterones are only in study now for this treatment. Joe had some side effects from statins. But Dr. Siller advises that these drugs are very safe in general.

"There is going to be a small percentage of the population that will have side effects, but the vast majority of patients do not, and they should be taking them if they need them," Siller said.

Dr. Siller also makes the point that starting a drug such as a statin in the hospital makes an impression on the patient that these drugs are lifesavers. That means that they may be more likely to take them regularly when the leave the hospital and resume their normal routines. Stopping the drug can dramatically increase the risk of stroke.

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