Cholesterol-lowering drugs and exercise are a winning combination for treating high cholesterol, research has shown.
Both on their own reduce the chances of people with high cholesterol dying prematurely, the study found. But together they had a significantly greater effect.
US scientists studied more than 10,000 veteran service men and women who had been diagnosed with the high cholesterol condition dyslipidaemia.
All had their fitness graded after taking part in an exercise test. Participants, who had an average age of 60, were then divided into those who were taking statin drugs and those who were not.
Over a period of 10 years, death rates were lowest for those who were both taking statins and physically fit.
Researchers used the least fit participants who were on statins as their benchmark. Compared with this group, individuals who were both highly fit and taking statins had a 70% reduced risk of death.
For those who were highly fit but not taking statins, the chances of dying were reduced by just under 50%.
Death risk for the least fit individuals who were not taking the drugs was increased by 35%.
The differences could not be explained by factors such as age, weight, ethnicity, sex, heart disease history and other drugs, said the researchers writing in the The Lancet medical journal.
Study leader Dr Peter Kokkinos, from the Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in Washington DC, said: “The fitness necessary to attain protection that is much the same or greater than that achieved by statin treatment in unfit individuals is moderate and feasible for many middle-aged and older adults through moderate intensity physical activity such as walking, gardening, and gym classes.”
People with dyslipidaemia, or high cholesterol, should improve their fitness to at least a moderate level, he said.
“Treatment with statins is important, but better fitness improves survival significantly and is a valuable additional treatment or an alternative when statins cannot be taken,” Dr Kokkinos added.
Natasha Stewart, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Both statins and exercise can help combat high blood cholesterol levels and look after your heart.
“However, this research shows that the two together can provide a winning combination to further improve your heart health, with higher intensity exercise possibly offering more protection.
“If you have high cholesterol, make sure you speak to your doctor about the best treatment regime to keep your heart healthy.”