Researchers are calling for international reviews on the use of statins after finding that they significantly cut the chance of heart attacks and strokes in people regardless of age, sex and prior risk of vascular disease.

The analysis, published in The Lancet online, looked at data involving more than 175,000 people and found that, for each 1 mmol/L reduction in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the risk of major vascular events was reduced by 20%, including in those considered to have a relatively low risk for heart disease.

In fact, the researchers note that the proportional reduction in major vascular events was at least as big in the two lowest risk categories - which included patients with a five-year risk of less than 10% and thus typically not considered suitable for statin treatment - as in the higher risk categories.

And just as importantly, the study also found no evidence that using statins to cut cholesterol lead to an increased risk of death from cancer or other non-vascular events, adding further evidence to suggest that the benefits of these drugs outweigh their risks.

The findings have reopened the debate on whether statins should be routinely dished out as a strategy to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Saving cash

While there are concerns over the principle of medicating the well, others argue that putting all people over the age of 50 on statin therapy could save health systems cash in the long run.

Guidelines on both side of the pond currently recommend that only patients with a 20% risk of having a cardiovascular event within 10 years should be taking statin therapy.

But study co-author Colin Baigent has estimated that lowering this to a 10% risk could ultimately save 2,000 lives and preventing 10,000 heart attacks or strokes every year in the UK alone, according to media reports.