Study: Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs, Statins, Do Not Increase Breast Cancer Risk (dateline September 18, 2004)
A recent study finds that the use of popular cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins does not increase the risk of breast cancer, as some previous data had suggested. In fact, the current study found a slight decrease in breast cancer risk among long-term statin users, though further study on this phenomenon is necessary. The researchers believe that their study results should provide some degree of assurance that statins do not make women more vulnerable toward developing breast cancer.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is a major health concern worldwide. Approximately 12.8 million Americans suffer from coronary artery disease and nearly 500,000 Americans die from heart attacks each year as a result of the disease. High cholesterol is a prominent risk factor for coronary artery disease. Changing to a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, losing weight, and exercising regularly can lower cholesterol. When diet and lifestyle changes are not successful in lowering cholesterol, drugs, such as statins, are typically recommended.
While statins have been shown to be highly effective at lowering cholesterol, the drugs have been found to cause cancer in rodents, and one clinical trial found an excess of breast cancer cases in women being treated with statins.
To investigate the relationship between statins and breast cancer risk, Denise M. Boudreau, PhD, of the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues studied 975 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer between 1997 and 1999 and compared them with 1007 women without a history of breast cancer. The researchers obtained Information about the use of statins, medical history, and health behaviors through interviews with the women.
Dr. Boudreau and her colleagues found that women who were currently using statins or had ever used statins were not found to be at an increased risk for breast cancer, compared with women who had not used statins. In fact, there was some indication that long-term use of statins (more than five years) could decrease the risk of breast cancer (though the researchers cautioned that further research in this area is needed). Thus, Dr. Boudreau and her team conclude that their results provide "some degree of reassurance to the increasing numbers of women using statins that such use is not associated with an increased risk of [breast cancer]."
The study results may provide relief to the growing number of women taking statins to help lower cholesterol. In 2001, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommended a more aggressive approach for treating high cholesterol and preventing heart disease in millions of women and men. In addition to more emphasis on low-fat diets and exercise, the guidelines call for an increase in the number of people that need to take statins from 13 million Americans to an estimated 36 million. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHBLI), if the new guidelines are followed, the incidence of heart disease could be reduced by as much as 30% to 40%.
Examples of statins used to lower cholesterol: