Do statins really reduce the risk of cancer?

Yesterday saw the on-line publication of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that concerns statins and is getting more than its fair share of media attention. The study, conducted in Denmark, analysed the rates of death from cancer in individuals taking statins, and compared them to those in individuals not taking these drugs. Those taking statins were found to be at a statistically significant reduced risk of dying from cancer. Some seem keen to claim that statins may not only be an answer to heart disease, but our cancer woes too. Take this headline for example which you can find here: ‘Statins cut mortality in cancer patients’. The wording of this title on a website dedicated to the education of doctors strongly suggests that statins actually reduce the risk of death from cancer.

But, not so fast. The NEJM study is what is known as ‘epidemiological’ or ‘observational’ study. The study tells us that statin use is associated with a reduced risk of death from cancer, but it can’t tell us whether or not statins actually cut cancer risk.

One fundamental problem with studies of this nature is that they are subject to what is known as the ‘healthy user effect’. Basically, what this means is that healthier, often more health-conscious individuals are more likely to end up on statins than less healthy, not so health-conscious individuals. Because of this, it’s possible that the apparent benefits of statins with regard to cancer (or anything else) are not to do with the drugs themselves, but the health characteristics of those more likely to take statins.

If we really want to know if statins reduce the risk of cancer death then we need to look to what are known as ‘intervention studies’ in which, usually, roughly equivalent groups of individuals are given statins or placebo. These studies, the gold standard of which are ‘randomised controlled trials’ do have the potential of discerning the true effects of drugs and other treatments.

Single studies such as these can provide useful data, but sometimes it makes sense to amass data from several studies to get a decent overview of the impact of a drug or class of drugs. Such grouping of studies together are referred to as ‘meta-analyses’.

One meta-analysis published in 2009 found that statin use was not associated with a reduced risk of cancer [2]. A more recent meta-analysis published this year found the same thing [3]. Meta-analyses of intervention studies are not perfect, but they are much better than single epidemiological studies like the one currently doing the rounds. And it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that there as been at least some concern about the impact statins might have on cancer risk in the elderly. In one study, statin use (compared to placebo) increased the risk of cancer by 25 per cent (statistically significant) [4].

Put in this context, the frothing enthusiasm exhibited by some regarding this latest study seems inappropriate. And for a website dedicated to the education of doctors to proclaim that ‘Statins cut mortality in cancer patients’ is downright negligent.


1. Nielsen SF, et al. Statin Use and Reduced Cancer-Related Mortality. NEJM published online 8 October 2012

2. Brugts JJ, et al. The benefits of statins in people without established cardiovascular disease but with cardiovascular risk factors: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ 2009;338:b2376.

3. Cholesterol treatment trialists’ collaboraton. Lack of effect of lowering LDL cholesterol on cancer: meta-analysis of individual data from 175,000 people in 27 randomised trials of statin therapy. PLoS One 2012;7(1):e29849. Epub 2012 Jan 19.

4. Shepherd J, et al. Pravastatin in elderly individuals at risk of vascular disease (PROSPER): a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2002;360(9346):1623-30

7 Responses to Do statins really reduce the risk of cancer?

  1. Judy Hayman 9 November 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    Whilst I am not a “fan” of Dr Ben Goldacre I have just struggled through his book and am appalled at what he has confirmed – my worst suspicions in relation to BigPharma

  2. Peter Andrews 9 November 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    It may also be that having high cholesterol is protective relative to low cholesterol levels. Your own post:

  3. Dr. Bill Wilson 9 November 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    I agree that it is premature to get excited over using statins to prevent cancer. At one point people thought that statins would help prevent Alzheimer’s disease but this didn’t pan out. We know that statins can have significant side effects and in my opinion they are already over-prescribed by the medical profession.

  4. Nancy Bruning 9 November 2012 at 11:05 pm #

    This reminds me of the excitement surrounding the “discovery” that hormone replacement therapy reduced heart disease and breast cancer. And we know how that ended.

  5. Morwenna 10 November 2012 at 2:01 am #

    Dr Briffa is correct in concluding that taking statins does not reduce the incidence of cancer.
    It cannot because if you look at the pharmakinetics/pharmacology of statins they inhibit the function of the immune system and liver, pancreatic function. By doing so our bodies natural defence mechanisms are reduced allowing diseases like cancer to proliferate. This is well documented on Pubmed in terms of the actual mechanism of statins and its known trigger for diabetes.

  6. HIlda Glickman Nutritionist 11 November 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    If Cholesterol is such a problem why do our bodies go to such lengths to prodice it? It makes up 25% of the brain, is in evey cell of the body. Read Campbell-McBride ‘Put your heart in your mouth’.

  7. helen 13 November 2012 at 2:18 am #

    considering statin manufacturers themselves say statins have no benefit in the elderly or for women especially those over 60 why are they being given them in the first place??? and in most studies good or sloppy statins make no difference to all cause mortality. when will people wise up and stop looking for that magic pill ……..??

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