Statin Use Linked to Reduced Cancer Deaths

A study by Danish researchers suggests that people who take statin drugs to lower their cholesterol are less likely to die from cancer than people who have never taken statins. The data also suggest they are less likely to die from any cause. The study did not look for a link between statin use and the likelihood of developing cancer.

The researchers used Denmark’s national databases to analyze statin use, cancer diagnoses, and deaths in the entire Danish population. They followed 295,925 patients who were 40 years of age or older and received a cancer diagnosis between 1995 and 2007. Of those, 18,721 had used statins regularly before the diagnosis and 277,204 had never used them. The researchers observed that among participants who took statins regularly, deaths from cancer were reduced by 15% and so were deaths from all causes.

The article was published early online Nov. 7, 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Eric Jacobs, PhD, American Cancer Society Strategic Director of Pharmacoepidemiology, said the study is exciting, but it does not mean people with cancer should start using statins in the hopes of improving their progress. Other factors could account for the lower death rates, he notes. For instance, some of the people taking statins may also have been taking aspirin, which has been linked with improved cancer survival in some recent studies. Furthermore, randomized trials of people taking statins to prevent heart disease have not shown a benefit against cancer, but they should have if statins do actually improve cancer survival.

“Additional research will be needed to clarify if and how statins might influence survival in cancer patients,” Jacobs said.

Potential benefits and risks of statins

Statins are the most common type of drug prescribed to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Because cholesterol is necessary for cell growth, researchers have hypothesized for many years that reducing the amount of cholesterol in the body could lead to decreased cell growth and a positive effect on cancer. However, the Danish study did not look at statins for cancer prevention, and previous research hasn’t found a strong link, Jacobs said.

“Because all of the participants in the Danish study already had cancer, this study did not address the question of whether statin use can help prevent cancer. However, strong evidence from both randomized trials and observational studies indicate that statin use does not have important effects, either good or bad, on overall cancer risk."

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says before taking statins, patients and their doctors should weigh the benefits of the drug in preventing heart disease with the risk of side effects. Side effects may include the potential for muscle damage, and increased risk of diabetes, possible memory loss, and in rare cases, liver injury.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Statin Use and Reduced Cancer-Related Mortality. Published early online Nov. 7, 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine. First author: Sune F. Nielsen, PhD, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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