Statins are now very widely used by the NHS
Drugs given to heart patients to lower cholesterol may have an additional benefit - keeping their blood vessels feeling younger.Advanced heart disease patients have arteries which have effectively aged faster than the rest of their bodies.
University of Cambridge scientists, writing in the journal Circulation Research, say statins may be able to hold back this process.
They hinted the same drugs might also prevent damage elsewhere in the body.
It's an exciting breakthrough to find that statins not only lower cholesterol but also rev up the cells' own DNA repair kit
Professor Martin Bennett
While it has been known for some time that they can lower cholesterol levels, this did not fully account for the benefits experienced by some patients, and evidence is growing that they can boost the function of the cells lining the heart arteries.
The Cambridge study adds to this evidence, and may shed light on how statins do this.
Cells in the body can only divide a limited number of times, and in patients with heart disease, the rate of division in these arterial cells is greatly accelerated - dividing between seven and 13 times more often than normal.
As the cells "run out of " divisions, they can suffer DNA damage, and do not work as well.
One of the important roles of these cells is to keep the artery clear of fatty "plaques" which can expand and block them, causing angina or heart attack.
The research found that statins appear to increase levels of a protein called NBS-1, which is involved in the repair of DNA within cells. This means they may be able to hold off the effects of old age in the artery wall for a little longer.Professor Martin Bennett, who led the research, said: "It's an exciting breakthrough to find that statins not only lower cholesterol but also rev up the cells' own DNA repair kit, slowing the ageing process of the diseased artery.
"If statins can do this to other cells, they may protect normal tissues from DNA damage that occurs as part of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer, potentially reducing the side-effects."
Professor Peter Weissberg, the British Heart Foundation's medical director, added: "Too much cholesterol in the blood induces a repeated cycle of damage and repair in the blood vessel wall which results in a heart attack if the repair mechanism is inadequate.
"Statins protect against heart attacks by reducing cholesterol levels and subsequent damage to the vessel wall - this research has shown they may also enhance the blood vessels' natural repair mechanisms."