The risk of heart disease could be cut more sharply by prescribing higher doses of cholesterol-lowering drugs than currently used, research shows.
Statins may prevent heart problems
A US study of more than 4,000 patients found those on higher doses of statins had 16% fewer serious heart problems, and a 28% cut in total death rate.
The research, in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests higher doses could save thousands of lives.
Coronary heart disease causes 120,000 deaths a year in the UK.
However, significantly increasing the standard dose of statins made available to all patients at potential risk would have a massive impact on NHS finances.
Their use already costs the NHS an estimated £700m a year.
World-wide, 25 million people get the drugs, but potentially 200 million could benefit from them.
For the study, patients who took a double dose (80mg) of the drug atorvastatin or a standard dose (40mg) of another drug called pravastatin.
The atorvastatin patients had an average LDL (bad) cholesterol level of 62mg per decilitre of blood as compared to 95mg per decilitre on average in the pravastatin patients.
The benefits of the more intense treatment started to become apparent within a month.
Lead researcher Dr Christopher Cannon, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, said: "We already knew that statins given to lower bad cholesterol to less than 100 are a terrific way of preventing death and heart attacks.
"The big question was: Relative to already excellent treatment, is there anything else gained by taking the cholesterol down another step? And we found that there clearly
In the UK it is common for a patient to be prescribed 10-20mg of atorvastatin as a preventative measure.
In more severe cases, 40mg is a standard dose, but this can be upped to 80mg in cases where the patient does not respond to the drug as readily.
Details of the research were presented at a meeting of the American College of
Cardiology in New Orleans.