PRESCRIBING drugs that lower cholesterol to healthy middle-aged men saves lives and is also cost-effective, according to a new study.

Researchers say there are clear health and economic benefits of statins, with the NHS saving £710,000 for every 1000 patients treated with a daily dose of the pills.

The study of 6595 men by experts from Glasgow University found the use of statins also helped to cut down the number of times people were admitted to hospital for heart attacks, strokes and coronary operations.

Over a 15-year period there were 163 fewer hospital admissions, saving 1836 days in a ward, and the use of statins reduced the number of admissions because of heart failure by 43%.

Dr Andrew Walker, health economist at the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at Glasgow University, said: "The results from this study are clear: treatment with a statin in middle age saves lives and frees up NHS beds for other patients."

The study was based on men aged between 45 and 64 who had high levels of cholesterol but no history of a heart attack. Half of the men, who were from the west of Scotland, were given pravastatin for five years and they were monitored for at least 15 years.

Even after the cost of the drug was taken into account, the results showed the NHS saved £710,000 for every 1000 patients who received a 40mg dose of the drug once a day for five years.

It comes after previous research raised questions about the benefits of statins, particularly when taken by otherwise healthy people.

But Professor Ian Ford, senior author of the research, said the latest findings that cholesterol-lowering drugs are beneficial even given to people with no obvious medical problems add to support for a recent call for the expanded use of statins.

Naveed Sattar, professor of Metabolic Medicine at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, added: "These results suggest generic statins are highly cost-effective in primary prevention setting.

"More importantly, statin benefits and cost-effectiveness appear to extend to individuals at risk levels far lower than currently recommended thresholds for treatment in many countries.

"This observation has important implications for future cardiovascular risk guidelines."

The study – Long-term impact on healthcare resources utilisation of statin treatment, and its costs effectiveness in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a record linkage study – is published in the European Heart Journal.

Lead author Dr Alex McConnachie said: "Treating relatively healthy, middle-aged men with statins reduced the number of hospital admissions due to heart disease and stroke, leading to better quality of life for the men in the study, and saving money for the NHS. Treatment of even younger people at lower risk of future heart disease is likely to be cost-effective too."

Professor Chris Packard, director of research and development at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, said it was interesting the benefits appeared to last such a long time. He added: "The results are striking given the fact the benefits were seen over 15 years, despite treatment only for five years."