Updated Friday, November 9, 2012 at 02:38 PM
LOS ANGELES — If you take statins to lower your cholesterol, you may also be lowering your risk of death from cancer, new research suggests.
A report published in Thursday's edition of The New England Journal of Medicine is one of a number of recent papers suggesting that statins limit the growth of cancer cells and make them more vulnerable to certain therapies.
"Regular statin use before and after a diagnosis of cancer could theoretically reduce cancer-related mortality," wrote study leader Sune Nielsen, a biochemist at the University of Copenhagen who based his findings on an analysis of more than 5.5 million people in Denmark.
Statins are already used by millions of Americans to improve their cardiovascular health by reducing the liver's production of cholesterol. Though an excessive amount of cholesterol can inhibit blood flow by narrowing or blocking arteries, the waxy substance is necessary for good health.
Among other functions, cholesterol helps to build and maintain cell membranes and is essential to their proliferation. Therefore, when cholesterol production is limited, the ability of cancer cells to reproduce uncontrollably is diminished, scientists say. There has also been some experimental evidence that statins may increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy.
Nielsen and his colleagues based their conclusions on an analysis of government death records and other medical data for the entire population of Denmark between 1995 and 2007.
The Danish Cancer Registry tracks 98 percent of all diagnosed cancer cases, and the Danish Register of Medicinal Products Statistics keeps track of all drugs dispensed in the country, including statins. Information on race, gender, education and place of residence was obtained through other public records.
The researchers zeroed in on cancer patients who were 40 or older, on the assumption that younger people were unlikely to take statins. That left a total of 295,925 cancer patients, including 18,721 who used statins.
Nielsen and his colleagues found that patients who took statins were 15 percent less likely to die during the course of the study — of cancer or any other cause — than those who hadn't taken the cholesterol-lowering medication. But the researchers didn't find a clear relationship between the size of the statin dose and the patient's risk of death, which suggested that "any statin dose will suffice in reducing mortality among patients with cancer."
The National Cancer Institute is wrapping up a clinical trial in the U.S. examining whether statins can help treat melanoma. However, the organization has warned patients not to take statins for cancer prevention unless they are participating in a clinical trial.
The authors of the Danish study noted several limitations in their analysis, the most significant being that 97 percent of the patients were whites of Danish descent. "Our results may not necessarily apply to other ethnic groups," they wrote.
They also said it was possible that statin use was a marker for increased health awareness among patients, which could affect the results.