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An Alternative To Heart Surgery

New research out today by the American Heart Association suggests a cholesterol-lowering drug may do more than just reduce your cholesterol count. The drug appears to reverse the crimps in blood vessels, that can increase heart attack risk.

Like thousands of other Americans every year, Jerry Heingartner needed angioplasty to open a blocked artery in his heart. He got relief from the procedure in 1992, but the heart disease kept progressing. A second angioplasty may have been avoidable if he had been treated aggressively with a cholesterol-lowering drug, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

A recent study sponsored by the makers of the cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin, called Lipitor, found those with mild cases of heart disease were able to use the drug as an alternative to surgery.

"It's very important to lower that bad cholesterol, because if you don't, another vessel is going to have trouble and close off and have a heart attack." said Dr. Bertram Pitt of the University of Michigan School of Medicine who led the study.

Overall, researchers found a 36 percent reduction in heart-related problems among people who took the drug compared with people treated with angioplasty.

"Patients who were given the statin drug did at least as well, if not better than the patients who were immediately sent to have their arteries opened with angioplasty," said Dr. Antonio Gotto of Weill-Cornell Medical College.

The research team said, "Until the results of additional long-term trials in a larger number of patients are available, aggressive lipid lowering with atorvastatin appears to be as safe and as effective as angioplasty and usual care."

This study isn't without its critics who say that while aggressive treatment with cholesterol drugs may slow the progression of heart disease, they have not been proven to reverse existing conditions and they certainly can't unblock a clogged artery.

"If you have a life threatening blockage or symptoms that are interfering with your life, then lipid-lowering therapy alone is not sufficient," said Dr. Jeffrey Moses of Lenox Hill Heart Institute.

More research on competing drugs would help determine who would benefit most from drug therapy over surgery.

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