WASHINGTON — A new side effect seems to be emerging for those cholesterol-lowering wonder drugs called statins: They may increase some people's chances of developing Type 2 diabetes.
A study published Monday adds to the evidence, finding a modest risk among older women who used a variety of statins.
It's a puzzling link, and specialists say people who most need statins because of a high risk for a heart attack should stick with the drugs.
"What I fear here is that people who need and will benefit from statins will be scared off of using the drugs because of reports like this," says Dr. Steven Nissen, cardiology chairman at the Cleveland Clinic, who wasn't involved with the research.
But more and more doctors are urging otherwise healthy people to use the pills as a way to prevent heart disease. For them, the findings add another potential complication as they consider whether to tackle their cholesterol with diet and exercise alone or add a medication.
"The statin should not be seen as the magic pill," says Dr. Yunsheng Ma of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who led the study of postmenopausal women.
Statins are one of the most widely prescribed drugs, and among the most touted with good reason. They can dramatically lower so-called "bad" LDL cholesterol. Studies make clear that they save lives when used by people who already have heart disease.
What's debated is how much the drugs help people who don't yet have cardiovascular disease but whose chances are higher because of other factors such as smoking or high blood pressure — or diabetes. In fact, long-term diabetes is so heart-risky that the American Diabetes Association urges fairly aggressive statin use by many diabetics. For everyone else, Nissen says the general rule is statins help people who have at least a 10 percent chance of a heart attack in the next 10 years, something a doctor can calculate.
Statins have long been known to cause muscle pain that on rare occasions becomes a serious breakdown of muscle that can lead to kidney failure, even death.
But whether statins can make blood sugar rise enough that someone crosses the threshold to diabetes has been confusing.
After all, some of the same risks for heart disease — such as being overweight and sedentary — also increase the odds of developing Type 2 diabetes. And Ma says too many statin users wrongly assume the pills will let them eat whatever they want.