Can Statins Cause Diabetes?

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Statins may increase your risk of type 2 diabetes by 46 percent, a new study finds. Finnish researchers tracked the health of nearly 9,000 men, none of whom had diabetes at the beginning of the study. But after six years, those who took Zocor or Lipitor were significantly more likely to develop the disease than the guys who weren't on a cholesterol-lowering drug.

There are multiple ways in which statins can heighten diabetes risk. "Statins have been shown to make insulin less effective at keeping blood sugar normal," says Dr. Robert Eckel, former president of the American Heart Association and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado. "These drugs also may make the pancreas less able to produce insulin. Moreover, statins are associated with some weight gain — and carrying additional weight is another important risk factor for type 2 diabetes."

But it works the other way too. Although these guys' statin use likely contributed to their increased diabetes risk, there's a good chance that some of them had been more prone to diabetes in the first place. "Typically, we see statin-induced diabetes in people who are already at high risk," says Dr. Robert Ratner, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association. "If your blood sugar is elevated to a pre-diabetes state, or if you are overweight or have a family history of diabetes, statins can tip you over the edge." Even so, Ratner says that if you're flirting with diabetes, your main mission should be eating right, exercising, and taking overall better care of yourself, rather than worrying about a statin's effect.

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Although statins can make diabetes much more likely, both doctors insist that, in many cases, the drugs' potential life-saving benefits are more important. "Even if statin therapy is associated with new-onset type 2 diabetes, the heart disease benefits outweigh the risk of diabetes," says Eckel.

But regardless, you should be aware of the upsides and downsides of statins so that you can discuss them in detail with your doctor should he be considering putting you on one. "We try to individualize all medical care to the benefits and harms than each person might attain from a particular therapy," Ratner says. "Clearly, there are people who don't need a statin, such as those with no family history of heart disease or very low LDL cholesterol. For these people, you can make the argument that the drugs have very little benefit. But for those at high risk, the increased diabetes risk is a reasonable tradeoff."