ORLANDO — New results from a large study suggest that the drugs known as statins may have another benefit beyond lowering cholesterol: reducing the risk of developing blood clots in the veins.
The study found that relatively healthy people who took a potent statin, sold as Crestor, were 43 percent less likely than those who took a placebo to get a blood clot known as venous thromboembolism.
The clots, which often develop in the legs, can be fatal if they travel to the lungs. Up to 600,000 Americans get venous clots each year and at least 100,000 die from them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
The risk of suffering blood clots increases with age, and people who are obese, have certain genetic abnormalities or have been inactive because of surgery or injury are more prone to develop them.
The study, led by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, examined the effects of statins on 17,802 people — men 50 and older, and women 60 and older — without high cholesterol or histories of heart disease. The main findings showed last fall that Crestor dramatically lowered rates of heart attacks, death and stroke in these people, who are not usually given statins now.
As a result, national medical panels are considering broadening guidelines on who should be taking statins.
With the relatively healthy people in the study, the number of blood clots was small — 94 total — but the placebo group developed 60 of them, compared with 34 for those taking the statin.
While it is unclear whether every statin would have the same effect as Crestor, most experts believe statins produce similar results, depending on the dose. Other statins are Lipitor and Zocor, and the drug is sold in generic form.
The new results were reported Sunday at the American College of Cardiology conference and published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
Common treatments for people who have had blood clots — usually several months of anticoagulants like warfarin or heparin — can cause hemorrhaging and require frequent monitoring. But blood clot reduction in the study "came without risk of hemorrhage at all," said Dr. Paul Ridker of Brigham.
The study is the first clinical trial to consider the effect of statins on blood clots in randomly selected people, although smaller studies have suggested similar results, including a 2008 review at Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York of the records of cancer patients who took statins.
Ridker says he has begun prescribing statins, in addition to anticoagulants, to patients who have had a previous venous blood clot. Some experts, however, said more proof was needed.
"I can't imagine that you would be treating people prophylactically yet," said Dr. Timothy Gardner, the president of the American Heart Association. "The dilemma is we don't want to put patients on medications that they don't need, especially if we're putting them on medications for life or for long term."