Doctors widely prescribe the cholesterol-lowering drug statin to help prevent heart attacks and stroke in high-risk patients, but a new study suggests another benefit of taking this medication.

In a research presented at the American Heart Association meeting in Nashville on Friday, researchers reported that statins may protect people who have narrowed leg arteries from amputation and even death.

Shipra Arya, from the Emory University School of Medicine, and colleagues looked at the health information and health status of more than 208,000 veterans with peripheral artery disease (PAD).

The disease, which Arya described as the next cardiovascular epidemic, is marked by the narrowing or blockage of the arteries that transport blood to the head, organs and limbs. The condition is often caused by fatty plaque buildup in the arteries and more often occurs in the legs than in the arms.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that about 8 million people in the U.S. have PAD, and this includes between 12 to 20 percent of individuals who are over 60 years old.

Arya and colleagues divided the subjects into three groups. Those in the first group received high doses of statins when they were diagnosed with PAD. Those in the second group took moderate to low doses of the medication, and those in the third group did not take statins at all.

After 5.2 years, the researchers found that those who took high doses of statin had 33 percent reduced risk for amputation and 29 percent reduced risk for death compared with those who did not take the drugs.

The study, one of the largest population-based research on PAD, suggests taking a high dose of statin may be beneficial for individuals diagnosed with PAD.

"Patients who have been diagnosed with PAD should be considered for placement on high dose statins upon diagnosis if they can tolerate it, along with other medical management, including smoking cessation, antiplatelet therapy and a walking program," Arya said.

Taking statins can cut risk for stroke, heart attack and heart disease-related deaths by up to 35 percent, but the drug has also been associated with an array of benefits. Earlier research, for instance, show that the drug may shorten wound healing time after a cardiac heart surgery. Statins have also been shown to reduce the risk of dying from lung cancer.

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