(CBS News) Can one pill extend your life by 11 years?
According to research published in PLoS ONE on July 18, a "polypill" made up of three blood pressure-lowering drugs and a cholesterol-lowering statin has shown promise in improving the health of those over 50 who take it daily. In a three-month trial conducted by scientists at Queen Mary, University of London, the pill was able to cut blood pressure by 12 percent and lower LDL - "bad" cholesterol - by 39 percent.
"The health implications of our results are large. If people took the polypill from age 50, an estimated 28 percent would benefit by avoiding or delaying a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime," consulting cardiologist Dr. David Wald from Queen Mary, University of London told the Telegraph.
From the results, the researchers believe that the polypill can cut heart disease problems by 72 percent and stroke by 64 percent for those who start taking the pill at the age of 50. On average, those who benefit - about one in four patients - would get 11 extra years of their life, in addition to delaying major cardiac episodes for that time period.
"When something like this is developed it should be made available as quickly as possible. How people pay for it is a judgment society needs to make," Wald said to the Telelgraph. He added that if only 50 percent of people 50 and older took the pill daily, about 94,000 fatal and non-fatal heart attacks and strokes could be prevented each year in the U.K.
This particular version of the pill, which Wald holds the patent for in Europe and Canada, is made up of the blood pressure drugs amlodipine, losartan and hydrochlorothiazide and a cholesterol-lowering simvastatin. It was tested on a group of 84 men and women over the age of 50 who were either given the polypill or a placebo and then switched on the opposite tablet after three months.
Not everyone is singing the pill's praises: British Heart Foundation's senior cardiac nurse Natasha Stewart warned the BBC that this "wonder drug" still has many aspects that need to be investigated. She believed the study was too small to expand the results to a wider population.
"However interesting this potential new pill is, medicines are not a substitute for living a healthy lifestyle. Staying active, eating healthily and not smoking are still vital ways to help keep your heart in good shape," she explained to the BBC.
Helen Williams, cardiac medicines spokesperson for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, echoed her statements to the BBC, adding that more tests needed to be done to ensure that these pills were safe for everyone to take.
Dr. Margaret McCartney, a Glasgow general practitioner who wrote the book "The Patient Paradox," told the Telegraph that the pills may have unintended side effects. The study claimed that 24 out of the 84 subjects complained of side effects when on the polypill (and 11 on the placebo), but none of them said they were so bad that they would stop taking the medication. Muscle ache was the main problem. But, even if such a side effect is seen as minor, if it stops someone from walking it could have a bigger effect, McCartney argued. She pointed out that recent research on statins has shown that women may not benefit from taking them, meaning they would be taking an unnecessary component of the pill that may just lead to unpleasant effects.
McCartney also felt the people who would be most likely to take the pill - the healthy - would probably benefit the least from it.
"I don't like the answers to these problems lie in a pill - and our increasing reliance on medicine to solve social and political problems ends up offering 'answers' to issues it can't possibly solve," she told the Telegraph.