(CNN) — Cholesterol-lowering medications like Lipitor seem to protect the body against more causes of death than just cardiovascular disease.
According to a retrospective study published Sunday in the European Heart Journal, the popular drug atorvastatin — sold by Pfizer under the name Lipitor — can also prevent death from infection and respiratory illness.
A clinical trial measuring the drug’s effectiveness ended in 2003 after having successfully shown to help prevent heart attacks and strokes.
Since then, the group taking atorvastatin has continued to experience “legacy effects” from that study — a 14% lower mortality rate compared to the group taking a placebo for the study.
“The result is very unexpected,” said Peter Sever, the study’s main author. “The benefits of statins for preventing heart attacks and strokes are well-established, but after long-term follow-up the most significant effects seem to be on deaths from other causes. It’s quite remarkable that there is still this difference between the two groups, eight years after the trial finished.”
The lower mortality rate in the atorvastatin group is due largely to a 36% reduction in deaths specifically from infection and respiratory illness, according to the study based on 4,605 participants in the United Kingdom.
Sever receives money from one or more pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer wants FDA approval to make Lipitor an over-the-counter medication, which could generate new sales after the company loses U.S. patent protection on the drug in November.
Retrospective studies like this one have their limits.
“It doesn’t sell me that ‘Wow, this is now going to prevent infections,’ it just doesn’t,” says Dr. Vincent Bufalino, a cardiologist and national spokesman for the American Heart Association.
“I think this is going to need some thought now. It raises a question and what it probably needs now is a go-forward randomized trial to say: is this true?”