Severely frail elderly patients do not need lipid-lowering drugs

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Do statins prevent a second (symptomatic) stroke in people with a previous stroke?

SPARCL27 (Table 3) examined the question of whether statins decrease the risk of recurrent ischemic stroke for patients with a prior history of stroke or transient ischemic attack. There was a statistically significant reduction in the primary composite outcome of fatal and nonfatal stroke, with 11.2% of the treatment group and 13.1% of the placebo group experiencing this outcome, an absolute risk reduction of 1.9% at 5 years (P = .03; number needed to treat 52, 95% CI 26–1,303). However, the difference in nonfatal stroke, which is the outcome of interest for frailty (since mortality has uncertain relevance), was not statistically significant (10.4% with treatment vs 11.8% with placebo, P =.11).

An exploratory subgroup analysis of SPARCL patients based on age30 showed a smaller, nonsignificant reduction in the primary end point of fatal and nonfatal stroke in the group over age 65 (relative risk 0.90, 95% confidence interval 0.73–1.11, P = .33) compared with the younger group (age < 65) (relative risk 0.74, 95% CI 0.57–0.96, P = .02).

The applicability of these results to the frail elderly is uncertain, since the subgroup analysis was not powered to determine outcomes based on age stratification and there were differences between groups in characteristics such as blood pressure and smoking status. In addition, the outcome of interest, nonfatal stroke, is not provided for the elderly subgroup.

In conclusion, in both primary and secondary prevention populations, the evidence that statins reduce nonfatal, symptomatic stroke rates for older adults is uncertain.

Do statins decrease all-cause mortality for primary or secondary prevention?

Due to competing risks for death, the outcome of mortality may not be relevant to those who are frail; however, studies showed the following:

For primary prevention, there was no decrease in mortality in PROSPER13 or in the elderly subgroup of JUPITER.29

For secondary prevention, an analysis of PROSPER trial data by Afilalo et al31 showed a significant 18% decrease in all-cause mortality (relative risk 0.82, 95% CI 0.69–0.98) using pravastatin 40 mg.

A decrease in all-cause mortality with statins was also reported in the pooled result of the Afilalo et al meta-analysis.31

What are the reported composite outcomes for primary and secondary prevention?

While we were most interested in the symptomatic outcomes described above, we recognize that the small numbers of events make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. Therefore, we also considered composite primary outcomes, even though most included multiple measures that have varying associations with disability and relevancy to frail older adults.

For primary prevention, in the PROSPER preplanned subgroup analysis,13 there was no statistical benefit for any outcome, including the primary composite measure. In contrast, the elderly subpopulation in the JUPITER trial28 showed a treatment benefit with rosuvastatin 20 mg compared with placebo for the primary composite outcome of MI, stroke, cardiovascular death, hospitalization for unstable angina, or revascularization. The number needed to treat for 2 years was 62 (95% CI 39–148).

In the CTT meta-analysis,32 patients at all levels of baseline risk showed benefit up to age 70. However, there was no statistically significant benefit in the composite primary outcome of coronary deaths, nonfatal myocardial infarction, ischemic stroke, or revascularization in the population most representative of elderly primary prevention—those who were more than 70 years old with a 5-year baseline risk of less than 20%.

For secondary prevention, in PROSPER,13 the subpopulation of patients treated for secondary prevention experienced benefit in the primary composite outcome of coronary heart disease death, nonfatal MI, or fatal or nonfatal stroke, achieving a 4% absolute risk reduction with a number needed to treat of 23 (95% CI 14–81) over 3 years.

Do statins decrease disability?

PROSPER was the only study that reported on disability. Compared with placebo, pravastatin did not decrease disability in the total population as measured by basic and instrumental activities of daily living scales.

Do statins help patients with heart failure?

Neither GISSI-HF25 nor CORONA26 found significant benefit from rosuvastatin 10 mg, despite LDL-C lowering of 27% in GISSI-HF and 45% in CORONA.

Do ezetimibe or other nonstatin lipid-lowering agents improve outcomes?

There is no definitive evidence that ezetimibe provides clinically meaningful benefit as a single agent.

For combination therapy, the IMPROVE-IT (Improved Reduction of Outcomes: Vytorin Efficacy International Trial)53 showed that adding ezetimibe 10 mg to simvastatin 40 mg after an acute coronary syndrome reduced the risk of nonfatal myocardial infarction compared with simvastatin monotherapy (event rate 12.8% vs 14.4%; hazard ratio 0.87, 95% CI 0.80–0.95; P = .002) for a population with a mean age of 64. The risk of any stroke was also reduced; strokes occurred in 4.2% of those receiving combination therapy vs 4.8% with monotherapy (hazard ratio 0.86, 95% CI 0.73–1.00, P = .05). After a median of 6 years, 42% of patients in each group had discontinued treatment. Given the very specific clinical scenario of acute coronary syndrome and the young age of the patients in this trial, we do not think that this study justifies the use of ezetimibe for severely frail older adults.

There is no evidence that other combinations (ie, a statin plus another lipid-lowering drug) improve clinical outcomes for either primary or secondary prevention in any population.54


It is often difficult to determine the number of years that are needed to achieve benefit, as most trials do not provide a statistical analysis of varying time frames.

The PROSPER trial13 lasted 3.2 years. From the Kaplan-Meier curves in PROSPER, we estimate that it took about 1.5 years to achieve a 1% absolute risk reduction and 2.5 years for a 2% absolute risk reduction in coronary heart disease death and nonfatal MI in the combined primary and secondary groups.

JUPITER28 was stopped early at 1.9 years. The Afilalo et al meta-analysis31 was based on follow-up over 4.9 years.

IMPROVE-IT53 reported event rates at 7 years. The authors note that benefit in the primary composite outcome appeared to emerge at 1 year, although no statistical support is given for this statement and divergence in the Kaplan-Meier curves is not visually apparent.

The duration of other studies ranged between 2.7 and 4.9 years (Table 1).26–28

It has been suggested that statins should be considered for elderly patients who have a life expectancy of at least 5 years.3 However, many older adults have already been taking statins for many years, which makes it difficult to interpret the available timeframe evidence.

In a multicenter, unblinded, randomized trial,55 statins were either stopped or continued in older adults who had a short life expectancy and a median survival of approximately 7 months. Causes of death were evenly divided between cancer and noncancer diagnoses, and 22% of the patients were cognitively impaired. Discontinuing statin therapy did not increase mortality or cardiovascular events within 60 days. Nevertheless, stopping statin therapy did not achieve noninferiority for the primary end point, the proportion of participants who died within 60 days. Statin discontinuation was associated with improved quality of life, although the study was not blinded, which could have influenced results.


Frail older adults commonly take multiple medications and are more vulnerable to adverse events.56

Many statins require dose reduction with severe renal impairment (creatinine clearance < 30 mL/min/1.73 m2), which would be a common consideration in severely frail older adults.


Myopathy, which includes myalgias and muscle weakness, is a statin-related adverse event that can impair quality of life. Myopathy typically develops within the first 6 months but can occur at any time during statin treatment.57 When muscle-related adverse effects occur, they may affect the elderly more significantly, particularly their ability to perform activities of daily living, rise from a chair, or mobilize independently. Another concern is that older adults with dementia may not be able to accurately report muscle-related symptoms.

It is difficult to ascertain the true prevalence of myopathy, especially in advanced age and frailty. Randomized controlled trials report incidence rates of 1.5% to 5%, which is comparable to placebo.57,58 However, inconsistent definitions of myopathy and exclusion of subjects with previous statin intolerance or adverse effects during run-in periods limit interpretability.57 Clinical experience suggests that muscle complaints may be relatively common.59–61

Advanced age, female sex, low body mass index, and multisystem disease are all associated with frailty and have also been described as risk factors for statin-associated muscle syndromes.61 Physiologic changes associated with frailty, such as reduced muscle strength, decreased lean body mass, impaired functional mobility, decreased reserve capacity, and altered drug metabolism may increase the risk and severity of myopathy.62

Adverse cognitive events

Meta-analyses of randomized clinical trials and narrative reviews find no definitive relationship between statin therapy and adverse cognitive events.63–67 Nevertheless, there have been case reports of memory loss associated with the use of statins, and the US Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning that statins have been associated with memory loss and confusion.68

It may be difficult to determine whether a statin is causing or aggravating cognitive symptoms among individuals with dementia without a trial withdrawal of the drug.


The recommendations below are intended for adults with severe or very severe frailty (ie, a score of 7 or 8 on the Clinical Frailty Scale11 or FACT5 and therefore apply to most older adults living in long-term care facilities.

Primary prevention

There is no reason to prescribe or continue statins for primary prevention, as it is unlikely that they would provide benefit for outcomes that are relevant in this population.

Secondary prevention

Statin treatment is probably not necessary for secondary prevention in those with severe frailty, although there may be extenuating circumstances that justify statin use.

Heart failure

There is no reason to start or continue statins for heart failure, as there is insufficient evidence that they are effective for this indication in any population.


There is no evidence that ezetimibe reduces cardiovascular events in any population when used as monotherapy. For a select population with acute coronary syndromes, ezetimibe has a modest effect. Given the very specific clinical scenario of acute coronary syndrome, we do not think that the available evidence justifies the use of ezetimibe for severely frail older adults.

Agents other than ezetimibe combined with statins

There is no reason to start or continue other lipid-lowering drugs in conjunction with statins.

Statin dosing

As statin adverse effects have the potential to increase with advancing age and frailty, lower doses may be appropriate.68

Adverse events

Consider stopping statins on a trial basis if there is concern regarding myopathy, drug interactions, or other adverse effects.


In primary prevention for older adults, there is doubt that statins prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke-related events because the main study involving the elderly did not show a benefit in the primary prevention subgroup.13 Additionally, there is no conclusive evidence that statin treatment decreases mortality in primary prevention.13,29

There is insufficient information to determine whether the frail elderly should receive statins for secondary prevention. Although there is evidence that treatment decreases measures of coronary heart disease and stroke, it is unclear whether it improves quality of life or function for those who are frail. To answer this question, we need more information about whether reported outcomes (such as stroke and MI) are associated with disability, which is not provided in many of the studies we reviewed. When disability was specifically considered in the PROSPER trial for the combined population of primary and secondary prevention, treatment with statins had no impact on basic and instrumental activities of daily living.

Some experts may not agree with our interpretation of the complex evidence presented in this article. Others may ask, “What is the harm in using statins, even if there is no definitive benefit?” However, the harms associated with statin therapy for the frail are poorly defined. In the face of these uncertainties and in the absence of definitive improvement in quality of life, we believe that “less is more” in the context of severe frailty.69

The cost of medications should also be considered, especially in long-term care facilities, where there is an added expense of drug administration that diverts human resources away from interactions that are more congruent with respecting the lifestage of frailty.

Careful review of evidence before applying clinical practice guidelines to those who are frail should become the norm. When considering treatment of frail patients, the five questions described in this review shed light on the applicability of clinical trial evidence. Therapies that are highly effective in healthier populations may be less effective when individuals are severely frail. Accordingly, we propose that medications should only be used if they improve quality of life or function.

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Statin therapy in the frail elderly: A nuanced decision

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