Harvard Men's Health Watch

Statins and cancer

The first statin drug was approved for clinical use in the United States in 1987. Doctors quickly recognized that lovastatin (Mevacor) had an excellent effect on blood cholesterol levels, but they worried about possible side effects. In the next 20 years, the statin family grew to its current roster of six drugs. A seventh, cerivastatin (Baycol), was withdrawn because of muscle toxicity, but the others have proved safe — and they've shown an unrivaled ability to reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels and cut the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths.

Since statins are the largest-selling prescription drugs in this country, doctors have wondered if they may have benefits beyond the heart. Indeed, statins produce a substantial reduction in the risk of stroke. And although the results are less conclusive, statins are being studied for possible benefits against a variety of diseases, from cataracts and dementia to chronic lung disease, osteoporosis, and the flu. And now attention is turning to statins and cancer.

Not to worry

In the early days, some scientists worried that statins might protect the heart at the cost of an increased risk of cancer. Their concern was based on experiments showing that several types of lipid-lowering drugs, including statins, appeared to increase the occurrence of malignancies in rodents. But men are not mice, and those fears have proved groundless. For example, the Heart Protection Study of more than 10,000 statin users and the Scandinavian Simvastatin Survival Study of more than 2,000 users found no increased cancer risk. More recently, a meta-analysis of 14 statin trials involving more than 90,000 individuals agreed that statins do not increase the risk of cancer.

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