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Calcium build-up in arteries: Do statins make it worse?

thumbnail Plaque attack—VA research shows statins may contribute to calcium deposits in arterial plaques, which also contain cholesterol. Some research suggests the calcium may actually help by stabilizing the plaques, but this theory is still being investigated. (Photo: iStock)

A study based at the Phoenix VA Medical Center suggests that statin drugs, widely prescribed in the U.S. to improve cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart attack and stroke, may actually increase calcium build-up in the arteries—although researchers aren't sure yet if this is necessarily a bad thing. While it's generally thought that more calcium in arteries is harmful because it contributes to overall plaque formation, there's some speculation that the mineral might actually help stabilize plaques, which could stave off dangerous clots that block blood flow. The researchers analyzed data on nearly 200 older Veterans with type 2 diabetes who had been in the VA Diabetes Trial, a much larger study that took place at VA medical centers nationwide. The patients studied by the Phoenix team also had severe atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries. The condition is caused by plaques made up of fatty substances—including cholesterol—and bits of calcium, which show up as white spots on calcium scans. Scans had been performed at the study's outset and five years later, on average, to track the progression of calcium build-up. After adjusting for other factors, the Phoenix researchers found that Veterans taking statins showed more calcium deposits in their coronary arteries, which carry blood into the heart. The same effect was seen in the aorta—the body's largest artery, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body—but only in a subgroup of patients who had not initially been on statins and started taking them after the study began. The Phoenix group now plans to further track patients to see if statin-related calcium build-up translates into more heart attacks and strokes, or actually helps prevent these events. (Diabetes Care, online Aug. 8, 2012)

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