Every person over the age of 75 should be offered statins – but NHS ageism is costing lives, Oxford scientists say.
Researchers said up to 8,000 deaths a year could be prevented if GPs simply prescribed drugs costing pennies a day.
The study, published in The Lancet, found that the cholesterol-busting pills could cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by one quarter, across all ages.
But researchers said ageist attitudes mean too many doctors thought “why bother?” offering statins to pensioners, seeing ill-health in old age as inevitable.
While two-thirds of deaths from heart disease occur in those over the age of 75, just one in three people in this age group is prescribed the drugs which could save them, they said.
Professor Colin Baigent, director of the Medical Research Council Population Health Unit, at Oxford University, said: “Very often doctors are unwilling to consider statin therapy for people who are elderly simply because they are old.
“That is an attitude that is preventing us from putting to good use the tools we have available to us. Statins are very cheap, they are just a few pence per day, they have a good safety profile,” he said.
“My view is that everybody over the age of 75 should be offered a statin,” he said, stressing that decisions to prescribe should follow a discussion between patient and doctor.
“Five and a half million people are over the age of 75 and about a third of those are currently taking a statin. If all of those took a statin we think about 8,000 deaths per year would be prevented.”
He said ageist attitudes across society meant GPs and hospital doctors did not treat elderly patients fairly, and ended up writing them off.
Urging medics to change their attitudes, he said: “The reason it isn’t done is because of uncertainties about the data .. confusion about safety … and ageism frankly.
“The idea that the person is elderly so they are going to have many other things happen to them so why bother?” he said.
The research, which examined 28 randomised controlled trials, involving more than 180,000 patients, found that every reduction of 1 mmol/L in cholesterol levels achieved by statins cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by around one quarter overall.
While they were most effective in younger age groups – cutting risk by 30 per cent in those under the age of 55 – the number of events was reduced by 20 per cent in the over 75s, the study found.
With two-thirds of deaths from heart disease occuring in the older age group, statins should be offered far more widely, with an extra 4 million over 75s asked to consider taking the drugs, to prevent death and major disability.
“Risk shoots up with age,” Prof Baigent said.
The drugs help lower the level of “bad” or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood.