If you have high cholesterol, taking statins can lower your risk of heart disease. But statins may promote diabetes. Get the facts to protect your health.
Prescription statin drugs lower too high levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein), known as the “bad” artery-clogging cholesterol. The medications have a proven track record of reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
But research into the impact of statins on glucose (blood sugar) levels has raised a worrisome possibility. Statins can raise the risk you’ll develop type 2 diabetes, a disease that, in turn, can increase your odds of having a heart attack or stroke.
If you are concerned about the statins and type 2 diabetes link, get the facts so you can work with your doctor to protect your health.
The statins and type 2 diabetes link
There’s no doubt heart disease and type 2 diabetes are both serious problems in the U.S. and, in some ways, connected. Heart disease, primarily coronary artery disease (CAD) caused by plaque accumulating in arteries, is the leading cause of death in American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And type 2 diabetes, which makes up around 95 percent of all cases of the disease in the U.S., is a major risk for CAD.
In fact, the CDC notes adults with diabetes are about twice as likely to die from heart disease than people without the disease. So, it’s no surprise statins are frequently prescribed for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes who have higher than normal cholesterol levels.
The drugs have long been known to cause side effects in some people, including muscle pain, digestive problems and, rarely, elevated liver enzymes, all problems that are usually reversible with a change to a different type of statin or lowering the dosage.
However, research has revealed another, less recognized side effect of statins: elevated blood sugar levels that could potentially lead to the development of type 2 diabetes in people who don’t have the disease when they begin taking the drug.
Although the risk is relatively small, the Food and Drug Administration has found the statins and type 2 diabetes association important enough that a warning about the risk is now required on statin labels.
Unravelling the statins and type 2 diabetes risk
To search for a possible association between taking statins and developing type 2 diabetes, University of Milan researchers examined data from multiple, independent studies involving over 1,000 research subjects who were followed for a year a longer.
The results, published in the journal NMCD (Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases), revealed people without type 2 diabetes when the study began had a 9 to 13 percent risk of developing the condition after taking statins over time.
Another study, published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, documented the health of over 9,500 research volunteers (all free of diabetes when the study started) for more than 15 years. The researchers found those who took statins had a 38 percent increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who didn’t take the drug over the course of the study.
While these findings may seem troublesome, it’s important to note those at highest risk of developing type 2 diabetes while taking statins were already at risk for the disease because they were overweight or obese and had higher than normal glucose levels when the research began.
Don’t fear the statins and type 2 diabetes link
Despite the studies, health experts do not suggest avoiding statins if you need them to lower cholesterol levels.
“Based on the current evidence, the use of statins should not be withheld from subjects at high cardiovascular risk, even if they are prone to new onset diabetes, because their benefits outweigh the risk,” University of Oklahoma cardiologist Steven Chrysant, MD, concluded in an article in Post Graduate Medicine about the statin and type 2 diabetes connection.
Research published in the journal Cardiovascular Diabetology, backs up previous studies that found statin drugs are metabolized differently in individuals ― the stronger statins with the most dramatic cholesterol-lowering impact tend to carry a greater risk for the development of type 2 diabetes. So, if blood glucose levels rise when taking statins, changing to a different statin can help.
If you are concerned about statins and type 2 diabetes risk, work with your doctor to lower other risk factors for the disease that you can control (such as being overweight and sedentary), follow through on regular check-ups, including monitoring of blood glucose levels, and try another type of statin if needed.
November 19, 2019
Janet O’Dell RN