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These findings suggest that care for terminally ill patients can be improved by taking them off medication primarily meant to prevent other health problems, the study authors said.
"For patients with shorter life expectancy, greater concern about pill burden, and more comfort-oriented goals of care, physicians may endorse discontinuing statins as a means to reduce the number of medications without apparent harmful effects on survival or quality of life," wrote study first author Dr. Jean Kutner, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and colleagues.
Statins are among the most widely used medications in the United States, and 25 percent of Medicare beneficiaries take the drugs. The benefits of statins -- which are prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke -- typically take two years to take hold.
The study included 381 patients, average age 74, who had late-stage cancer or other fatal illnesses and were taking statins. Half the patients stopped taking statins while the other half continued to take the drugs.
Median survival time -- meaning half lived longer, half less -- for all the patients in the study was 219 days. The percentage of patients who died within 60 days was not significantly different between patients who kept taking statins and those who did not.
The study was published online March 23 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
"If the results we report -- improved quality of life, no significant differences in mortality and modest cost savings -- had been produced by a randomized clinical trial of a new drug in patients with advanced life-limiting illness, the trial would be heralded as a breakthrough and there would be discussion of how to speed access to this new drug," the researchers wrote in a university news release.
Kutner said the same energy needs to be applied to determining when it is appropriate for physicians to discuss discontinuing statin therapy with their patients.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: University of Colorado, news release, March 23, 2015