Cholesterol-Cutting Statins Found to Raise Diabetes Risk by 46%

Millions of people take pills known as statins each year to lower their cholesterol levels. A new study shows the medicine also raises their risk of developing diabetes by 46 percent.

The report in the journal Diabetologia found the drugs, including Pfizer Inc.’s Lipitor and AstraZeneca Plc’s Crestor, make the body less sensitive to insulin and reduce production of the hormone used to convert blood sugar to energy. Patients should be aware of the potential risk and consider lowering the amount of the medicine they use, said researcher Markku Laakso, a professor at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio.

Statins are among the most potent medicines developed for heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide. They prevent the disease from developing in healthy people and avert heart attacks and death in those who are already diagnosed, including diabetics, who are particularly vulnerable. The new findings, gleaned from the study of 8,749 men followed for almost six years, don’t mean patients should avoid treatment, Laakso said.

“The benefits of statin treatment in cardiovascular prevention outweigh their harmful effects on glucose metabolism,” he said. “However, the risk of diabetes can be partially avoided by using a lower dose of statin.”

The risk of diabetes increased along with the amount of drug used mainly for atorvastatin, the generic form of Pfizer’s Lipitor, and simvastatin, originally sold as Merck & Co.’s Zocor, the study found. While both drugs have lost patent protection, they remain widely prescribed, with Lipitor alone generating $2.1 billion in sales last year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in 2012 that Lipitor and Crestor would carry warnings about an increase in blood-sugar levels in patients, leading to a greater risk of diabetes.

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