A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says giving heart patients a drug known as a beta-blocker improves their chances of survival after heart bypass surgery.
Beta-blockers are a family of drugs commonly prescribed to people with high blood pressure. They are also given to people to treat irregular heartbeat and those with chest pain.
The drug gets its name because it "blocks" the stimulatory effect of the body's fight or flight hormones, called epinephrine and nor-epinephrine, according to heart surgeon T. Bruce Ferguson, one of the authors of the JAMA study.
"Beta-blockers tend to decrease heart rate," Dr. Ferguson said. "They tend to decrease how strongly the heart pumps. And thereby provide some, we think in this context, some protection for patients who are coming to surgery where their sympathetic nervous systems are highly challenged by the stress of the operation."
Dr. Ferguson and colleague Eric Peterson studied the data on almost 630,000 patients who'd undergone coronary bypass surgery between 1996 and 1999. The researchers compared the outcomes of those who were on beta-blockers at the time of the operation to those who were not on the drug. 2.8 percent of patients taking beta-blockers before surgery died within thirty days, compared to 3.4 percent for those not on beta-blockers at the time of surgery.
Dr. Ferguson said researchers found no survival advantage for those with severely weakened hearts.
"We can't say whether it would help or hurt them. We can say in virtually all of the other subset of patients that beta-blockers are probably beneficial."
The investigators say they are anxious to see whether newer beta-blocking drugs improve survival of heart patients after surgery, including those with severely weakened hearts.