Millions of people take statins to lower their cholesterol and reduce their risk of heart disease and death from heart-related events. Now there’s evidence that their medication regimen may also help protect them from dying from another common condition that circulates this time of year — the flu.
In a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers reviewed the charts of 3,043 older adults who were hospitalized with influenza in 2007-08, and found that those who were taking statins before or during their stay in the hospital were 41% less likely to die from the flu over 30 days, compared with those who didn’t use the medications. The absolute risk of death was 3.9% in people on statins, and 5.5% in those who didn’t take cholesterol drugs.
The benefit persisted even after the scientists accounted for other factors that might affect the odds of death from the flu, including the patients’ age and underlying health (people taking statins tend to be older and to have heart and other metabolic conditions) and flu vaccination status (more than half of the participants had been vaccinated against the flu, although in the study year, the shot was not a good match against the circulating strains). The researchers also adjusted for the antiviral drugs the patients received to treat their infection.
The findings are interesting, but they don’t quite justify doling out statins every flu season. The trial wasn’t set up explicitly to test the effect of statins on flu deaths — that would have required randomly assigning patients with the flu to take statins or a placebo, and then monitoring their complication and death rates.
It’s also not clear whether the patients who were taking statins and hospitalized for the flu harbored some other health-related factors that affected their response to the disease. In fact, Dr. Jeffry Kwong, a scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Science in Toronto who has studied statins and the flu, is convinced that there are other factors that could explain the drug’s apparent benefits against the flu. “The people who receive statins are just inherently different from people who don’t receive statins,” he told WebMD, noting that those who take the cholesterol-lowering drugs may be more likely to take care of themselves in general, and to be healthier overall, compared with those who don’t take medications for health. That difference could account for their lower their risk of dying from the flu.
“At this point, statins should not become the standard of care for people hospitalized with the flu,” Dr. Ann Thomas, the study’s co-author and a physician at the Oregon Public Health Division told HealthDay.
Still, with influenza causing severe enough illness to lead to more than 200,000 hospitalizations each year, any therapy that may help lower patients’ risk of death is worth studying further.
Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.