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Can taking statins improve your chances of surviving cancer?

A new study suggests that people who take statins before they are diagnosed with cancer are less likely to die of the disease.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Statins are drugs commonly taken by people with high cholesterol. These drugs lower the amount of cholesterol in their blood and reduce their risk of having health problems related to high cholesterol, such as heart attacks and strokes.

Statins stop the cells in our bodies from making cholesterol, which is needed for their growth. Cholesterol is also needed in order for cancer cells to grow, and so doctors think it’s possible that statins could stop cancer cells from growing and spreading. If so, taking statins could theoretically reduce your risk of dying of cancer. But there isn’t much good evidence for this. At the moment it is only a theory.

To find out more, researchers in Denmark looked at the health records of nearly 300,000 people aged 40 years or older who, between 1995 and 2007, were told they had one of 13 types of cancer. Some 19,000 of these people regularly took a statin in the two years before they were told they had cancer. They were compared to 277,000 people who didn’t take a statin. The researchers then compared which group was most likely to live longer with cancer until the end of 2009.

What does the new study say?

Overall, 71 in 100 people with cancer died, and of those who died 83 in 100 died of cancer, seven in 100 died of heart disease, and 10 in 100 died of other causes.

People who took a statin were 15 percent less likely to die for any reason than people who never took a statin. People who took a statin were also 15 percent less likely to die from causes related to cancer than people who didn’t take statins.

How reliable is the research?

The researchers used a national database that records, for every person in Denmark, all of the medicines prescribed and all of the illnesses people are diagnosed with. So, effectively, no one can drop out of the study, which makes it more reliable.

The researchers compared each person who took a statin with three people who did not take a statin but who were the same sex and age and who had the same type of cancer. This should also make the link more reliable. Only including people who took statins before they were told they had cancer also makes the results more reliable.

The researchers also looked at people with smaller, slower-growing cancers and people who had used a statin at any time before they were told they had cancer, but the results were similar.

This type of study can’t prove that taking a statin reduces your chance of dying of cancer. Cancer is a complex illness that affects people differently, and there may have been factors the researchers couldn’t have accounted for that affected people’s risk of dying. For example, people who took statins may have been more likely to do other things to improve their health, and this may have affected the results.

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