That finding is published in the October issue of Ophthalmology, a journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and is based on health claims of more than 300,000 patients with high cholesterol who took statins for at least two years.
Researcher Joshua Stein, MD, says statins may improve blood flow to structures and tissue in the eye, including the optic nerve, and reduce pressure in the eye. Stein is an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
He cautions, though, that the association was only seen in patients who were diagnosed with high cholesterol, and it’s unknown whether statins have any effect on reducing glaucoma risk among patients with normal cholesterol levels.
“While our findings seem promising, before we encourage physicians to change how they manage patients with glaucoma, we would like to see these findings confirmed,” Stein says. “Although statins are known to be relatively safe, there are some known side effects associated with their use, and we need to be sure that the benefits these medications may have outweigh their possible side effects.”
Glaucoma a Common Problem
Stein and his team looked at records of more than 500,000 patients with high cholesterol, submitted between January 2001 and December 2009, that also included information about pharmacy prescriptions.
Study participants were age 60 or older. Slightly more than 10,000 of them developed open-angle glaucoma, a leading cause of vision loss.
Glaucoma affects more than 2.7 million Americans age 40 and older, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Open-angle glaucoma is a condition that tends to progress slowly. Pressure builds up in the eye that damages the optic nerve, leading to vision loss.
Robert Eckel, MD, past president of the American Heart Association, says other research has suggested possible health benefits to taking statins beyond reducing cholesterol, but more investigation is needed to understand how and why. Eckel is also a professor of medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado in Denver. The strength of this particular study, he says, is its size.
“We see a benefit in this study, but the benefit was modest,” he says. “And we don’t know the biological mechanism. [For doctors] prescribing statins to patients, this information would be useful. It would be interesting to know what the long-term effects are since statins are a lifelong therapy. An interesting unanswered question is, ‘Would this be a benefit if you’re on statin therapy for 10, 15, 20 years? Do statins reduce inflammation in the eye?' We don’t know the biological mechanism.”