Cholesterol-lowering statin medications, such as the widely prescribed Lipitor, may protect diabetics against diabetes-related damage to small blood vessels that can cause to blindness and neuropathy, which can lead to amputations, a new study suggests. However, the drugs may cause non-diabetics to develop the disease.
Statins are used to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people with elevated cholesterol levels. Statin side effects, which include muscle injury and liver damage, also include increased blood sugar levels, which can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes. It is this adverse event, however, that researchers focused in on for their research.
“Since high levels of blood glucose, the hallmark of diabetes, are linked with microvascular disease, and since statins are suspected of raising glucose levels, we tested the hypothesis that individuals taking a statin before a diagnosis of diabetes might be at increased risk of developing microvascular complications,” said study author Borge Nordestgaard, chief physician in clinical biochemistry at Copenhagen University Hospital in Demark. The results took researchers by surprise.
The study involved more than 60,000 people with diabetes, aged 40 and older. Among them, 15,500 used statins and 47,000 did not. After a median follow-up of 2.7 years, data showed that people who used statins were 34 percent less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes-related nerve damage and 40 percent less likely to develop diabetes-related damage to the retina. Statin users also had a 12 percent lower risk of gangrene than those who did not use the drugs.
“We found no evidence that statin use is associated with an increased risk of microvascular disease,” said co-author Dr. Sune Nielsen, adding that whether statins helped protect against some forms of microvascular disease is still unclear.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that can lead to serious health complications such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, neuropathy and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that people taking statins, especially older women, are at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes.