Arizona Advanced Medicine Clinic

Lower Your Cholesterol, Increase Your Risk of Cancer?

Lower your cholesterol, increase your risk of cancer?

But aren’t statins supposed to be the good guys? The New England Journal of Medicine published an article in May 2012 that states:

“Over a period of 4 years of statin use, a reduction of 1 mmol per liter (39 mg per deciliter) in the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol translates into a 9% reduction in the risk of death from any cause among patients with diabetes and a 13% reduction among those without diabetes.”[1]

That’s hard to beat. Take a pill, reduce your risk of heart attack and death by up to 13%. The article goes on to say: “Few drugs have had such a dramatic effect on health outcomes.”

The Journal of Clinical Lipidology published an article in the same month stating: “A better understanding of the characteristics of current and former statin users may be helpful for formulating strategies to improve long-term adherence.”[2] The conclusion of the article was that most patients who stopped taking their statins did so because of the side effects. The conclusion of this article was, interestingly enough, that we can increase compliance with taking the statin if only we talk more with our patients and explain to them how important it is.

If I were to take a medication and it made me feel really bad, I would want to know why it made me feel bad. What I find missing in the scientific literature about side effects from statins is any sense of concern that the side effects might represent something really important, and maybe we should figure it out before we continue to push the drugs. [Related reading – High cholesterol – 29 billion reasons to treat it]

But wait… taking statins also appears to increase the risk of developing diabetes,[3] in a dose-dependent manner – the higher the dose of a statin drug, the greater the risk of diabetes. Diabetics are more likely to develop cancer than non-diabetics.[4]

The New York Times published a piece[5] in early March 2012 entitled: The Diabetes Dilemma for Statin Users. They note that about 1 in every 200 people who take statin drugs will develop diabetes simply because of taking the drug for as little as five years. That covers a pretty good segment of the adult population, 100,000 new diabetics. If you are one of the people without heart disease who are taking statins prophylactically, or “just because it will prevent a heart attack”, I recommend that you think again.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) even put out a warning about statin drugs: “Increases in glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c) and fasting serum glucose levels have been reported with statin use.”[6]

And besides, one really wonders how much of the benefit of statin drugs to those who have already had a heart attack comes from changing of lifestyle. The authors of a paper about adherence to a regimen of statin drugs in older adults suggested that “patients initiating and adhering to chronic preventive drug therapies are more likely to engage in other health-promoting behaviors. Failure to account for this relationship may introduce bias in any epidemiologic study evaluating the effect of a preventive therapy on clinical outcomes.”[7]

In other words, it is not at all clear whether lowering cholesterol by means of statin drugs is as healthy as the manufacturers of said statin drugs would like us to believe.

Remind me again why I would want to take a drug whose “side effects” include muscle aches, chronic fatigue, heart failure, diabetes, cancer and memory loss?

Just because “the doctor said so” is not sufficient reason to engage in risky behavior.

We do have a choice. We can vote both with our pocketbooks and with our choice of lifestyle. We do not have to fill the prescription. We can choose to eat fruits and vegetables. We can even choose to eat them organically grown. We can choose to limit our portions of animal based proteins. We can choose to avoid osteoporosis-inducing sodas and cancer-inducing artificial sweeteners.

We can choose to avoid unnecessary drugs.

We have a choice.


[1] Goldfine AB. Statins: Is It Really Time to Reassess Benefits and Risks? N Engl J Med 2012; 366:1752-1755 May 10, 2012.[2] Cohen JD, Brinton EA et al. Journal of Clinical Lipidology. 6;3: 208-215 (May 2012)[3] Culver AL, Ockene ISs et al.Statin Use and Risk of Diabetes Mellitus in Postmenopausal Women in the Women’s Health Initiative. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(2):144-152. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.625.[4] Bodmer M, Becker C et al. Use of Antidiabetic Agents and the Risk of Pancreatic Cancer: A Case–Control Analysis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2012 Apr;107(4):620-6. doi: 10.1038/ajg.2011.483.[5] The Diabetes Dilemma for Statin Users downloaded 6/24/2012[6] FDA Drug Safety Communication: Important safety label changes to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. Downloaded 6/24/2012[7] Patrick AR, Shrank WH et al. The association between statin use and outcomes potentially attributable to an unhealthy lifestyle in older adults. Value Health. 2011 Jun;14(4):513-20.

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