When you take a drug long-term for a chronic condition, it’s only natural to worry about its safety—notably its effect on the risk of cancer. That helps explain why cholesterol-lowering statin drugs arouse much concern, beyond their well-known, but relatively uncommon, risks of muscle problems and diabetes.
Six years ago, an analysis by researchers at Tufts University made headlines when it suggested that statin users who lowered their cholesterol the most had a slightly increased risk of cancer. However, research reviews before and after that have found no such risk. Overall, it seems that statins do not affect the odds of developing cancer.
Recently, a large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine raised the possibility that statins may reduce the risk of dying from cancer if you develop it. It looked at the entire Danish population over 14 years and found that people taking statins before and after developing cancer were 15 percent less likely to die from it than nontakers who had cancer, regardless of the type of cancer.
This was only an observational study, and there may be something about statin takers that reduces cancer mortality. They may be more health-conscious and more likely to undergo cancer screenings—this is called the “healthy user bias.” Researchers adjust data for many such confounding factors, but can’t do it completely.
Bottom line: While research suggests that statins may have additional benefits—perhaps against Alzheimer’s, cataracts or even cancer—more studies are needed.