When people with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, stop taking cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins, they greatly increase their risk of dying within a few years, according to a new study published online March 29, 2012, in Arthritis Care & Research.

The study found a 60 percent increased risk of death from heart disease among RA patients who stopped their statin therapy and a 79 percent increased risk of death from all causes, compared with RA patients who continued taking statins.

The death rate among people with RA is 1.5 times greater than the general population, with cardiovascular disease, or CVD, as the leading cause of death. So managing risk factors for CVD – such as keeping cholesterol at recommended levels – is especially important for RA patients, and statin drugs, such as atorvastatin, or Lipitor, and simvastatin, or Zocor, are commonly prescribed to control cholesterol.

When RA patients quit taking statins, it may literally be a life-and-death decision, says lead study author Mary De Vera, PhD, who at the time was a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health and Arthritis Research Centre of Canada.

“If you have RA and your doctor prescribes statin therapy for cardiovascular risks, it’s important to stay on the therapy,” De Vera says. “Even quitting intermittently, for just three months, then going back on, can increase death risk.”

Previous reports by the same researchers have shown that 38 percent of RA patients permanently discontinue statin use, increasing their heart attack risk by 67 percent. Other studies have found that in the general population, statin discontinuation rates can be more than 50 percent. Part of the reason for the high levels of discontinuation, the researchers note in the study, is that “statin therapy represents ‘chronic’ or long-term treatment in which therapeutic effects are not readily observed.”

“A lot of studies have shown that, in the general population, patients tend to discontinue or not take these drugs properly,” says De Vera. “We wanted to investigate the impact on RA patients, because there is such a high risk of cardiovascular disease in this patient group.”