An apple a day really does keep the doctor away, according to a new study that found prescribing a daily apple to adults over the age of 50 could prevent about 8,500 vascular deaths each year in the UK. The effect, the researchers found, would be roughly the equivalent of assigning the drugs designed to lower cholesterol levels to everyone 50 years old and up who is not already taking them.

Published in the British Medical Journal, the study comes at a time when calls for more liberal use of statins among those in the studied age group are on the rise in the UK.

The team, from the University of Oxford, used mathematical models to test the effect of prescribing either a statin or an apple each day to everyone in the UK 50 years and older who is not already taking the prescription drug. A 70 percent compliance rate was assumed, as was overall calorie intake remaining constant.

Based on the results, the study authors determined that by offering statins to the 17.6 million people over 50 who would begin taking them if they became recommended as a primary measure of prevention for their age group, 9,400 vascular deaths could be averted annually. Meanwhile, offering a daily apple to 70 percent of the UK population over the age of 50 - a group of 22 million people - could avert 8,500 deaths.

Unlike apples, however, statins come with a key catch: side effects. Offering statins to so many millions more would mean the country would have an excess of 1,000 cases of muscle disease and more than 10,000 extra diagnoses of diabetes.

Still, the researchers don't recommend avoiding new prescriptions of the drugs, and stress that those already taking them should continue to do so. Rather, they argue that a healthy diet in addition to increased statin use could save thousands of UK citizens.

"The Victorians had it about right when they came up with their brilliantly clear and simple public health advice: 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away.'" said Dr Adam Briggs of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University. "It just shows how effective small changes in diet can be, and that both drugs and healthier living can make a real difference in preventing heart disease and stroke. While no-one currently prescribed statins should replace them for apples, we could all benefit from simply eating more fruit."