Statins are the miracle drug of our time. You could argue that they are one of the most important medical advancements in recent history. They literally have already saved countless thousands of lives, and will continue to save the lives of countless others in the future. There is a good chance that you personally take statins, and if not, you are almost guaranteed to know many others who do. They are that ubiquitous in today’s society, and for good reason. Their cholesterol-lowering properties are well documented, but sometimes the best gets even better. According to a new study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, statins may now also help prevent those with cancer from dying. One pill that reduces cholesterol, effectively treats cardiovascular disease, and reduces cancer mortality? Pinch me, I’m dreaming. So what exactly are statins and what makes them so miraculous? And how might they help reduce cancer deaths?
Statins are a class of drugs that have been around for about 40 years, but have only become popular in the last 20 or so. But popular may be an understatement, because in 2003, the drug atorvastatin (Lipitor) became the best selling pharmaceutical in history. Statins work by inhibiting a key enzyme (HmG CoA reductase) in the cholesterol-production pathway used by your liver. Scientists have long observed that dietary cholesterol has basically no correlation with blood cholesterol, meaning that the cholesterol in your diet has little or no impact on the amount of cholesterol actually floating around in your blood causing health problems. It turns out that blood cholesterol is largely regulated by the liver. So turning down cholesterol production in the liver is what gives statins their ability to significantly reduce blood cholesterol. Reducing blood cholesterol leads to cleaner arteries, improves cardiovascular health, and leads to less heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular deaths.
Statins are typically prescribed for people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease or for those who are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease (multiple risk factors). Typically, for those without pre-existing cardiovascular disease and whose cholesterol is higher than optimal, lifestyle changes are first recommended. These lifestyle changes include things like exercise, and modifying one’s diet to include less saturated and trans fat and more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fiber. This is one of the main reasons why statins are the perfect American drug. When the choice comes down to either a) begin a regular exercise routine with at least 3-5 hours of vigorous exercise per week combined with an overhaul of one’s diet that eliminates many delicious foods or b) pop a pill, it easy to see why statins are so popular. Ideally, lifestyle changes would be the better choice and research has shown that such lifestyle changes are effective at lowering cholesterol and reducing cardiovascular risk. But when the alternative is as easy as taking a pill, human nature says take the pill and enjoy seconds at the dessert bar.
How statins may help prevent cancer deaths isn’t well understood. The authors of the study that did find a 15% reduction in cancer deaths for those taking statins surmise that perhaps the statins help prevent cancer from multiplying and proliferating throughout the body. It is important to note that the study’s findings apply only to those who already have cancer, and that those taking statins without pre-existing cancer did not show a reduced risk of developing and/or dying from cancer. Additionally, the data was correlation-based, meaning other factors could be involved and that we can’t say for sure if statins truly reduce cancer mortality.
So we have seen that statin drugs are indeed quite miraculous. They are a major weapon against heart disease and cardiovascular disease, and may even help prevent cancer deaths. Being that heart disease and cancer are two of the biggest killers of Americans, one magic bullet that helps prevent both is pretty incredible. But as with everything, there is no free lunch and drawbacks, side effects, and controversy do exist. Side effects from statins are typically uncommon, but may include muscle damage and breakdown, raised liver enzymes, and possible nerve damage. Statins may also increase one’s risk for diabetes, and lead to increased artery calcification which some doctors point to as a major predictor of heart disease, heart attack, and death. As always, more research is needed, especially when it comes to a drug that so many people take and that has only been on the market a relatively short amount of time. But at least for the moment, it does appear that statins are quite miraculous in their ability to treat cardiovascular disease, and now perhaps reduce the risk of dying from cancer in those who are already diagnosed. If you are over 40, regular checkups and blood work, combined with the recommendations of medical professionals is the best way to make sure that your heart and cardiovascular system is functioning optimally. So if you are currently taking statins or if you are prescribed them in the future, hopefully now you know a little more about them and how they do what they do.
Article Courtesy: Andrew Steingrube