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Cholesterol drugs may lower cancer risk

A new study suggests that statin drugs, widely used to lower cholesterol, might lower people’s risk of cancer, too.

Many studies suggest that statins affect more than just cholesterol. For a while, it wasn’t clear whether the pills, which include Lipitor, Crestor and Zocor, raised or lowered the risk of cancer. But recent studies have pointed to the possibility that they may actually lower the risk of some cancers.

Gabriel Chodick and colleagues at Maccabi Healthcare Services, a big health maintenance organization in Israel, looked at the health records of everyone prescribed a statin between 1998 and 2006 – more than 200,000 people. They looked at their medical records from then until 2007.

People who took statins the most consistently and for the longest time had a considerably lower risk of cancer over the seven years studied, they reported. The risk was reduced by 31 percent for lymphomas, they report in Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our study demonstrated that persistent use of statins is associated with a lower overall cancer risk,” they wrote.  “In light of widespread statin consumption and increases in cancer incidence, the association between statins and cancer incidence may be relevant for cancer prevention.”

Over the time studied, 8,662 people were diagnosed with cancer. Those who took their prescribed statins 86 percent of the time or more were the least likely to be diagnosed with cancer over an average of five years.

It’s not the first study to show a lower cancer risk but it may be one of the largest. In December 2011 researchers found that men who died of prostate cancer were half as likely to have taken a statin than men who didn’t have prostate cancer. But to truly prove that statins reduced cancer risk, researchers would have to do what is known as a randomized study, randomly assigning people to take statins or not and then seeing which group developed more cancers over time.

Statins cut the risk of heart attack and stroke by reducing artery-clogging cholesterol. They also affect the lining of the arteries and lower inflammation. They’ve been shown to reduce the risk of death from influenza and pneumonia, as well, and may protect smokers.

Cholesterol-lowering drugs are the most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. according to the  IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, with 255.4 million prescriptions written in 2010. Antidepressants came in No. 2, with 253.6 million prescriptions.

About a quarter of adults 45 and older take statins and some cardiologists have long joked about putting them in the U.S. water supply. But there are good reasons not to. They can cause muscle pain and, in about one in 10,000 patients, can cause a dangerous muscle-damaging condition called rhabdomyolysis. They can also affect the liver.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration warned that statins can cause memory loss and diabetes.

But on Thursday,a team at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston reported in the Lancet medical journal that the benefits of statin therapy exceed the small diabetes risk.

“Our data indicate that the risk of developing diabetes while on statin therapy was limited almost entirely to people who had at least one major risk factor for diabetes prior to initiating statin therapy,” said Dr. Paul Ridker, who led the study.

Related links:

Benefits of statins outweigh diabetes risks

More Americans have chronic conditions

FDA beefs up statin warnings