Could Common Lifesaver Drug be Linked to Increased Diabetes Risk?

Common drugs that doctors readily prescribe to lower cholesterol levels and avert heart disease may be linked to an increased risk of diabetes, says a new study that looked into the medical histories of 153,000 women.  This is devastating news, but the team that published the report has been quick to advise that no patient should abandon medication without consultation with his or her doctor.

Cholesterol levels commonly rise in older people, especially if they are overweight, their diet is fatty and their lifestyle lacking in exercise.  This can pose a serious risk to health, as cholesterol may begin to line the walls of arteries, making it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body.  As the cholesterol gets thicker, blood pressure rises and the condition may eventually lead to heart attack or stroke.


Cholesterol is actually not one, but a group of fatty substances produced by the body, sometimes in response to stress, but also because the diet is rich in saturated fats.  Not all members of the group are harmful.  Doctors advise that “bad” cholesterol levels should be kept under 3 mmol/L, while “good” cholesterol should be kept over 1 mmol/L and overall levels should be kept under 5 mmol/L.

Cholesterol testing is done with a simple prick to the finger, and if the result shows high cholesterol, the patient may be given a diet sheet, or very likely given statins to lower the cholesterol levels.  These drugs work by inhibiting an enzyme that is vital to cholesterol production in the liver, and have been proven extremely effective at preventing cardiovascular disease.  Side effects are rare – or so doctors have believed to date – yet some medics have always believed statins are over prescribed.

Now a study carried out atHarvardMedicalSchooland its teaching affiliate Brigham and Women’s Hospital suggests that these life saving medications may cause increased risk of another serious health problem.  The researchers studied data on 153,000 women aged 50-79 from the 15-year Women’s Health Initiative, which gathered medical information from more than 160,000 post menopausal women from different ethnicities in the US.

The team found that all forms of statin therapy were linked to a 48% increase in new onset diabetes, and analysis suggested that all types and strengths of the drug were involved – that in fact statins as a class could pose a risk.  However, the team found no clear relationship between the amount prescribed and the length of time the patient had taken statins.

Diabetes itself is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and strokes – along with other side effects – but the team were quick to warn that patients should not stop taking their prescribed statins after reading the report.  Team leader Dr JoAnn Manson said statins are very reliable drugs that clearly do good and in many cases, the benefits outweigh the risks.  But she said the study results pointed to the need for extra care when doctors prescribe statins and monitoring of patients for diabetes.  She said more research is needed into the relationship between statins and diabetes.

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