Severely frail elderly patients do not need lipid-lowering drugs

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Frail older adults are almost always excluded from large-scale clinical trials,48 leading to uncertainty about whether the conclusions can be applied to those with advanced frailty.

Although age is an imperfect proxy measure of frailty,49 we consider the age of the study population as well as their comorbidities.

Participants in the studies we reviewed were generally younger and healthier than those who are frail, with mean ages of about 75 or less (Table 1).

PROSPER was the most representative study, as it specifically enrolled older adults, albeit without frailty,13 and excluded people with poor cognitive function as defined by a Mini Mental State Examination score less than 24.

JUPITER enrolled a select population, as described above. The median age in the elderly subgroup was 74 (interquartile range 72–78).29

The Afilalo et al31 meta-analysis primarily included studies of young-elderly patients, with a mean age of less than 70. PROSPER13 was an exception.

The GISSI-HF study,25 which examined the benefit of statins in heart failure, described their study population as frail, although the mean age was only 68. Compared with those in GISSI-HF, the CORONA patients26 with heart failure were older (mean age 73) and had more severe heart failure. Accordingly, it is possible that many of the CORONA participants were frail.


Because baseline cardiovascular risk increases with age, the elderly should, in theory, experience greater absolute benefit from lipid-lowering. However, there is uncertainty about whether this is true in practice.

Some, but not all, epidemiologic studies show a weaker relationship between cholesterol levels and cardiovascular morbidity and mortality rates in older compared to younger adults.50,51 This may be because those with high cholesterol levels die before they get old (time-related bias), or because those with life-threatening illness may have lower cholesterol levels.50 In addition, classic risk factors such as age, sex, systolic blood pressure, cholesterol values, diabetes, smoking, and left ventricular hypertrophy on electrocardiography may have less power to predict cardiovascular risk among older patients.52

The goal of treatment in frailty is to prevent further disability or improve quality of life. Therefore, meaningful outcomes for lipid-lowering therapy should include symptomatic nonfatal MI and its associated morbidity (eg, heart failure and persistent angina) or symptomatic nonfatal stroke leading to disability. Outcomes without sustained clinical impact, such as transient ischemic attack, nondisabling stroke, or silent MI, while potentially important in other populations, are less relevant in severe frailty. Notably, in many statin studies, outcomes include asymptomatic heart disease (eg, silent MI and “suspected events”) and nondisabling stroke (eg, mild stroke, transient ischemic attack). When symptomatic outcomes are not reported separately, the impact of the reported benefit on quality of life and function is uncertain.

The outcome of all-cause mortality is generally recognized as a gold standard for determining treatment benefit. However, since advanced frailty is characterized by multiple competing causes for mortality, a reduction in all-cause mortality that is achieved by addressing a single issue in nonfrail populations may not extend to the frail.

To more fully understand the impact of lipid-lowering therapy on quality of life and function, we examined the following questions:

Do statins as primary prevention reduce symptomatic heart disease?

Coronary heart disease outcomes

Outcomes for coronary heart disease from PROSPER and JUPITER are summarized in Table 2.

PROSPER. In the PROSPER primary prevention group,13 statin therapy did not reduce the combined outcome of coronary heart disease death and nonfatal MI.

The JUPITER trial demonstrated a statistically significant benefit for preventing MI in the elderly subpopulation (ages 70–97),29 but the number needed to treat was high (211 for 2 years), with a wide confidence interval (CI) (95% CI 106–32,924). The trial did not adequately differentiate between symptomatic and asymptomatic events, making it difficult to determine outcome relevance. Also, due to the methodologic limitations of JUPITER as described above, its results should be interpreted with caution.43,44

The CTT Collaborators32 did not report individual outcomes (eg, coronary heart disease) for the elderly low-risk subgroup and, therefore, this meta-analysis does not answer the question of whether statins reduce symptomatic heart disease in primary prevention populations.

Taken together, these findings do not provide convincing evidence that statin therapy as primary prevention reduces the incidence of symptomatic heart disease for severely frail older adults.

Do statins as secondary prevention reduce symptomatic heart disease?

Most studies defined secondary prevention narrowly as treatment for patients with established coronary artery disease. For instance, in the Afilalo et al meta-analysis,31 the small number of studies that included individuals with other forms of vascular disease (such as peripheral vascular disease) enrolled few participants with noncardiac conditions (eg, 29% in PROSPER13 and 13% in the Heart Protection Study20).

Therefore, any evidence of benefit for secondary prevention demonstrated in these studies is most applicable to patients with coronary heart disease, with less certainty for those with other forms of cardiovascular disease.

In PROSPER,13 the secondary prevention group experienced benefit in the combined outcome of coronary heart disease death or nonfatal MI. In the treatment group, 12.7% experienced this outcome compared with 16.8% with placebo, an absolute risk reduction of 4.1% in 3 years (P = .004, number needed to treat 25, 95% CI 15–77). This measure includes coronary heart disease death, an outcome that may not be generalizable to those who are frail. In addition, the outcome of nonfatal MI includes both symptomatic and suspected events. As such, there is uncertainty whether the realized benefit is clinically relevant to frail older adults.

The Afilalo et al meta-analysis31 showed that the number needed to treat to prevent one nonfatal MI was 38 (95% CI 16–118) over 5 years (Table 2). However, this outcome included both symptomatic and asymptomatic (silent) events.

Based on the available data, we conclude that it is not possible to determine whether statins reduce symptomatic heart disease as secondary prevention for older adults who are frail.

Do statins reduce heart disease in combined populations?

In the combined primary and secondary population from PROSPER,13 pravastatin decreased the risk of nonfatal symptomatic MI from 4.3% in the placebo group to 3.4%, a relatively small reduction in absolute risk (0.9%) and not statistically significant by our chi-square calculation (P = .099).

Do statins prevent a first symptomatic stroke in people with or without preexisting cardiovascular disease?

Stroke outcomes

Preventing strokes that cause functional decline is an important outcome for the frail elderly. Stroke outcomes from PROSPER,13 JUPITER,29 and the Afilalo et al meta-analysis31 are summarized in Table 3.

For primary prevention:

In PROSPER (primary prevention),13 there was no statistically significant benefit in the combined outcome of fatal and nonfatal stroke or the single outcome of transient ischemic attack after 3.2 years.

JUPITER,29 in contrast, found that rosuvastatin 20 mg reduced strokes in primary prevention, but the absolute benefit was small. In 2 years, 0.8% of the treatment group had strokes, compared with 1.4% with placebo, an absolute risk reduction of 0.6% (P = .023, number needed to treat 161, 95% CI 86–1,192).

Neither PROSPER nor JUPITER differentiated between disabling and nondisabling strokes.

For secondary prevention:

In PROSPER (secondary prevention),13 there was no statistically significant benefit in the combined outcome of fatal and nonfatal stroke or the single outcome of transient ischemic attack after 3.2 years.

The Afilalo et al secondary prevention meta-analysis demonstrated a 25% relative reduction in stroke (relative risk 0.75, 95% CI 0.56–0.94, number needed to treat 58, 95% CI 27–177).31

Notably, the stroke outcome in Afilalo included both disabling and nondisabling strokes. For example, in the Heart Protection Study,20 the largest study in the Afilalo et al meta-analysis, approximately 50% of nonfatal, classifiable strokes in the overall study population (ie, both younger and older patients) were not disabling. Including disabling and nondisabling strokes in a composite outcome confounds the clinical meaningfulness of these findings in frailty, as the number needed to treat to prevent one disabling stroke cannot be calculated from the data provided.

Next Article:

Statin therapy in the frail elderly: A nuanced decision

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