Statins linked to lower rheumatoid arthritis risk

* Statin users have lower rheumatoid arthritis risk -study

* Regular statin use linked to 40 percent cut in risk

* Scientists say more studies needed to confirm findings

LONDON, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Israeli scientists have found a significant link between taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs like Pfizer's PFE.N Lipitor or AstraZeneca's AZN.L Crestor and a reduced risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers who studied 1.8 million patients registered with the Maccabi Healthcare Services in Israel found that those who regularly used statins were 40 percent less likely to develop the chronic inflammatory condition than those who did not.

“What we have found is very convincing, and we believe that patients who are taking statins should follow the recommendation of their physicians and take them persistently,” said Gabriel Chodick of the Maccabi centre in Tel Aviv, who led the study.

But he said further work was needed “to clarify the exact nature of the biological relationship between adherence to statin therapy and the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis.”

Statins are the most widely used drugs for the treatment and prevention of heart disease, both among people who already have it and among high-risk but healthy people. They are among the most successful drugs of all time and have been credited with preventing millions of heart attacks and strokes.

Recent studies have shown that statins also have general anti-inflammatory properties and the Israeli scientists, whose work was published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine journal, said their findings in rheumatoid arthritis may be due to this effect.

Most of the people whose medical data they studied were taking a generic statin such as simvastatin, the Israeli team said, but some were taking more potent versions like Crestor and Lipitor, and the results suggested that the reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis was greater in these patients.

Among patients who were taking statins for 80 percent of the study period, which ran from 1998 and 2007, there was a 40 percent reduced risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

The researchers also looked at osteoarthritis -- a more common and usually less severe form of arthritis that develops with age -- but found that there was only a small short term decrease in risk of developing this in patients taking statins.

“We would not suggest taking statins as a preventative measure against rheumatoid arthritis, as we would need full clinical trials first to examine that idea,” Chodick said in a telephone interview. “But for those patients who are already prescribed statins -- especially the younger ones -- we would highly recommend that they adhere to the treatment.”

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects about one percent of the world’s population and arises when the immune system mistakenly attacks joints all over the body. Apart from the joints, it may also affect the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys and blood vessels. Many sufferers end up with deformed hands and feet, resulting in loss of functions and movement. (Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)