Researchers also say most people with cholesterol and blood pressure problems should continue taking their medications.
Could a drug you’re taking to supposedly improve your health and longevity actually be endangering your health in other ways?
Researchers in a recent study have concluded that taking statins to lower cholesterol and blood pressure can more than double a person’s likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
Statins are a class of drugs intended to lower cholesterol — specifically LDL (bad) cholesterol — as well as lower blood pressure. By doing so, the medications can reduce a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke.
The American Heart Association (AHA) currently recommends the use of statins in:
- adults age 40 to 75 with LDL levels between 70 to 189 mg/dL and at least a 7.5 percent risk of having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years
- adults age 40 to 75 with diabetes and an LDL level between 70 to 198 mg/dL
- anyone with a history of cardiovascular health issues, including heart attack, stroke, chest pain, peripheral artery disease, or transient ischemic attack
- adults age 21 or older with LDL levels of 190 mg/dL or higher
This recent study included 4,683 men and women without diabetes who were candidates for statins based on heart disease risk. About 16 percent of the participants were eventually prescribed statins during the course of three years.
Researchers said they discovered that not only did statins double the participants’ risk of type 2 diabetes, but they noted that the longer people were taking the drugs, the greater their risk of diabetes became because blood sugar levels continued to escalate.
In addition, those taking statins for more than three years were three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Researchers also found that participants’ HbA1c levels increased considerably while taking statins. The HbA1c exam is a routine blood test for diabetes that estimates average blood sugar over several months.
Victoria Zigmont, PhD, a graduate student in public health at The Ohio State University and a study author, said researchers weren’t able to determine a participant’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes outside of their statin use.
Several risk factors for type 2 diabetes were considered when determining if the incidence increased because of statins or because of body mass index, waist circumference, number of hospital visits, or cholesterol levels.
“The fact that increased duration of statin use was associated with an increased risk of diabetes — something called a dose-dependent relationship — makes us think this is likely a causal relationship,” Zigmont told Healthline.
Despite the findings around the risk of diabetes, Zigmont and her team are still encouraging the use of statins for the sake of preventing heart attacks and strokes.
“I would never recommend that people stop taking the statin they’ve been prescribed based on this study, but it should open up further discussions about type 2 diabetes prevention as well as patient and provider awareness of the issue,” she said.
The AHA’s statement on statin safety and adverse events emphasized that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
The organization also states the risk of side effects is small and that only 10 percent of patients experience side effects severe enough that they stop taking the drug.
However, one expert Healthline interviewed is more critical of statin use.
“Yes, the research did find a significantly increased incidence of type 2 diabetes with statin therapy,” Alexander Reeves, MD, a neurologist and former professor of neurology at Dartmouth Medical School, told Healthline, “but it made the gross error of not reviewing the real statistics on statin use and reduction in cardiovascular events and risk of mortality.”
Reeves speaks around the country about the risks and dangers of taking statins. A study pinpointing the increased risk of type 2 diabetes in people taking statins comes as no surprise to him.
“Insulin resistance is associated with statin use and presumed to be at least part of the reason for the approximately 50 percent increased risk for type 2 diabetes with long-term use,” he said.
Reeves explained one theory behind the impact of statins on blood sugar levels may be that the drug depresses the release of insulin and increases overall insulin resistance.
What concerns him further is that he believes the medical establishment continues to push statins on people already diagnosed with diabetes. He feels this may actually make it more challenging to achieve healthy blood sugar levels.
“Based on the research, it would appear foolish to treat type 2 diabetes with statins,” Reeves said. “What little benefit may be attained is markedly outweighed by the risks, which include many more problems.”
Reeves mentioned alternatives for the estimated 35 million people in the United States currently on statin medications.
“Increasing a person’s HDL cholesterol is likely a better approach to improving cardiovascular health,” Reeves said. “It promotes the removal of oxidized cholesterol and returns it to the liver for recycling through the synthesis or destruction of bile acids.”
Reeves recommends trying to increase your HDL by getting plenty of exercise, quitting smoking, following a Mediterranean type of diet, drinking the occasional glass of red wine, getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from your diet or a supplement, and plenty of vitamin D.