MONDAY, March 19 (HealthDay News) -- Statin drugs, which are used to lower cholesterol, might reduce a bit the risk of developing pneumonia, a new study suggests.

Researchers analyzed data from a large international study that looked at the efficacy of rosuvastatin (Crestor) in preventing heart disease. The trial included almost 18,000 adults aged 50 or older who had no history of heart disease or diabetes. Participants were randomly selected to receive Crestor or an inactive placebo.

"These data from a major randomized trial support the hypothesis that statin treatment may be associated with a modest protective effect against some infections," said lead researcher Dr. Victor Novack, head of the Clinical Research Center at Soroka University Medical Center in Israel.

"We consider this analysis to be an additional step toward a definite trial that will specifically investigate the statin effect on infection," he said.

The researchers also found a decrease in some other types of infections such as soft tissue infections, gynecologic infections and fungal infections, Novack said.

In the past, statins such as Lipitor and others have been touted by some researchers for protecting brain function and lowering the risk for multiple sclerosis. However, they have also been linked to memory loss, depression and an increased risk for developing diabetes.

The new study was published March 19 in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Novack's group found that during roughly two years of follow-up, 214 of those taking the statin developed pneumonia, compared with 257 of those receiving the placebo.

While the study uncovered an association between statin use and a decrease in pneumonia, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

One problem with the finding may be that people taking statins take better care of themselves, the so-called "healthy user effect."

However, Novack discounts this explanation. "The randomized nature of our trial of more than 17,000 men and women -- study participants were not aware whether they are treated with statin or placebo -- excludes this possibility," he said.

"The effect observed in our trial is modest as compared to the observational studies, but appears to be robust," he added. "These results can be used as a basis for the further investigations."

Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that "this study shows a very modest, maybe minimal decrease in pneumonia in people who use statins. It's hard to say this is significant."

Horovitz added, "I don't think you would start somebody on statins just because it might reduce their possibility of pneumonia. You would give them a vaccine against pneumococcal pneumonia. But you don't put them on a statin if you want to reduce pneumonia."

And Horovitz noted, the study doesn't take into account whether or not any of the participants had been vaccinated, which could throw the figures off.

"If somebody is on a statin and they have a slightly less chance of getting pneumonia that's great, but it wouldn't be a reason to initiate statins," he stressed.

Another expert, Dr. David Friedman, a cardiologist at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., commented that "there has been some thought that statins act as an anti-inflammatory above and beyond cholesterol lowering."

However, statins aren't benign -- they do have some side effects. "So it's premature for anyone to start taking statins to prevent pneumonia," Friedman said.

Two study co-authors have received consultation fees and funding from AstraZeneca, the makers of Crestor.

More information

For more about statins, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.