Rates of dementia are predicted to soar
Scientists have found further evidence that taking commonly used cholesterol- lowering statins may protect against dementia and memory loss.
The study, published in Neurology, found that
statins - normally taken to reduce heart disease risk - may cut the risk of dementia by half.
The five-year project examined 1,674 Mexican Americans aged 60 and over at heightened risk of dementia.
The Alzheimer's Research Trust said the research is "encouraging".
A quarter of the patients took a statin, and in total 130 went on to develop dementia.
The jury is still out on how effective they are, but this study adds to growing evidence that they may have some benefits
Dr Clive Ballard
Once the researchers had taken account of other risk factors, including education, smoking, and diabetes, they calculated that those who took statins had an approximately 50% lower risk of developing dementia.
The study comes hot on the heels of separate research which suggests that drugs to reduce blood pressure can also cut the risk of dementia.
It is estimated that 4 million people in England and Wales alone currently take statins.
Lead researcher Professor Mary Haan, of the University of Michigan, said:
"The bottom line is that if a person takes statins over a course of about five to seven years, it reduces the risk of dementia by half, and that's a really big change."
Statins help to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of cholesterol which clog up the blood vessels.
It is thought that a poor supply of blood to the brain may be one factor which promotes the development of dementia.
Therefore, if statins help keep the blood vessels healthy, and blood flowing freely to the brain, they may help protect against the disease.
However, it is still not clear exactly how statins work on the biochemical pathways involved in dementia.
Professor Haan said one possibility is that statins may help to reduce levels of the hormone insulin, which have also been implicated in the development of dementia.
Rebecca Wood, of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, described the research as "encouraging".
However, she said:
"People should not take statins unless medically advised to do as, as side-effects can be unpleasant.
"We need much more research into this possible prevention for dementia."
Dr Clive Ballard, of the Alzheimer's Society, said statins were increasingly being touted as a potential cure for dementia.
"The jury is still out on how effective they are, but this study adds to growing evidence that they may have some benefits.
"All drugs have some side-effects so it is important to seek professional advice about medication."
It is estimated that 700,000 people in the UK live with Alzheimers'. The number is expected to double within a generation as the average age of the population rises.