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Can 4 common medications — Viagra, estrogen, a statin and an OTC painkiller — help you live longer? Here's what the latest research says.

Hand holding a capsule
Can certain medications help you live longer? Here are some findings from new research. (Getty Images)

Most people want to live a long, healthy life, and there’s plenty of research dedicated to achieving that goal. While science has found that doing things like eating a plant-based diet and exercising regularly can help extend your life, new research has linked several seemingly random medications to increased longevity.

The study, which has been shared on the preprint server MedRxiv, analyzed prescription medication and mortality data for more than 500,000 patients in the U.K. Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource in the United Kingdom. The researchers looked at 406 prescription medications and found that, as a whole, most drugs were linked to a shorter lifespan — likely because of the effect of the disease that the medication is trying to treat, they said.

But four medications were linked to a lower risk of mortality during the 12-year study period, including sildenafil (better known as Viagra), the cholesterol drug atorvastatin, the pain reliever naproxen and the hormone estradiol.

It’s important to point out that the study is awaiting peer review, which is when the medical community evaluates and analyzes a study; that is considered the gold standard in research. But the findings are already raising a lot of questions. Here's what some experts are saying.

How do these medications work?

Each of these medications are different and they’re designed to treat completely unrelated conditions:

  • Sildenafil. There are a few brand names for sildenafil, but the best-known one is Viagra. This medication treats erectile dysfunction in men by increasing blood flow to the penis during sexual stimulation, Medline Plus explains. That increased blood flow can then cause an erection. Some forms of sildenafil can also improve the ability to exercise.

  • Atorvastatin. Sold under the brand name Lipitor, atorvastatin is designed to help lower cholesterol and triglyceride (fat) levels in the blood, Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. It works by blocking an enzyme needed by your body to make cholesterol, lowering the amount of cholesterol in your blood in the process, the Mayo Clinic says.

  • Naproxen. This is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that’s used to treat pain and fever, Nelson says. While it’s available by prescription, it’s also sold commercially under brand names like Aleve.

  • Estradiol. This is the same as estrogen, and it’s used as a medication to manage and treat symptoms of menopause. Estradiol is the most common form of the estrogen hormone for hormone replacement therapy in menopause.

Why might these drugs be linked to longevity?

It’s important to point out that this study only found a link between these medications and longevity. Meaning, it didn’t prove that taking any of these medications causes someone to live longer. However, there are a few theories.

“For atorvastatin, it may be acting through lowering cholesterol and preventing cardiovascular disease,” study co-author Kevin Perez, co-founder and head of research at anti-aging company Epiterna, tells Yahoo Life. “Sildenafil might act by improving cardiovascular health, mental well-being or increased physical activity. Estradiol and other hormone replacement therapies (HRT) have been linked with cardiovascular protection, bone health and neuroprotection.”

Naproxen is an anti-inflammatory medication and “there is significant evidence that inflammation contributes to cellular aging,” Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life.

There is some research to support the findings though. One large study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that men who took sildenafil or medications in the same class of drugs had a lowered risk of several heart events, including heart failure, angina and cardiovascular death. “Sildenafil is used for erectile dysfunction, but it was originally designed for hypertension,” Alan points out.

A mouse study published in the journal Immunity also found a lowered risk of colorectal cancer and heart disease in those who took NSAIDs. “Estrogen is also cardioprotective,” Alan says. But research on statins like atorvastatin has only found a small decrease in the risk of dying from heart disease on the medication.

Doctors say it’s important to take these study results with a grain of salt. “I don’t think you can draw the conclusion that these drugs cause you to live longer based on the results of this study,” Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “An association is not a cause.”

Nelson agrees. “If you look at 400+ things, you’re going to find associations that may or may not be true,” he says. A lot of the findings are likely tied to what else is happening in a patient’s life and their health beyond the medication, Nelson adds.

“You’re more likely to be using a drug like sildenafil because you’re healthy [enough to be taking it],” Nelson says. “It’s also not a drug you take every day. It’s hard to imagine how a drug you take once in a while will have an impact on your health like that.”

Adds Cutler, "People who are in poor health are much less likely to be taking Viagra than people who are in vigorous health."

Nelson says it’s “very possible” that some of the medications studied can help extend a person’s life, but it’s difficult to say for sure. Alan says there are also likely medications that weren’t linked to a longer life in this study that actually can increase lifespan. “I am surprised that an antidepressant did not make this list,” she says. “However, it would be incredibly hard to tease out the effect of one drug on lifespan, given that lifespan is influenced by many factors, including genetic factors.”

Ultimately, doctors say it’s best to take a medication if you need it — and avoid it if you don’t. “The net value of any medication is individualized and can’t be spread across a whole population,” Nelson says. “It would be a bad idea to take these medications without speaking to your care provider.”