Slideshows Images Quizzes
From Our 2012 Archives
font size

Statins May Raise Diabetes Risk in Older Women

Study: Middle-Aged, Older Statin Users Had More Type 2 Diabetes

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Jan. 9, 2012 -- Use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may be associated with an increased risk of diabetes in middle-aged and older women, a new study suggests.

Experts say the evidence as a whole suggests that the risks are slight and that for most women who take statins, the benefits for preventing heart attack and stroke outweigh those risks.

Researchers analyzed data on nearly 154,000 women followed for an average of seven years.

Women who reported taking a statin such as Lipitor, Pravachol, Zocor, or other statin drugs were almost 50% more likely to report developing type 2 diabetes than women who did not take statins, according to principal researcher Yunsheng Ma, MD, PhD, MPH, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Statin Users Report More Diabetes

The study included 153,840 postmenopausal women with an average age at enrollment of 63. Most were followed for about seven years.

None of the women had diabetes when they were included in the study, but 10,242 cases of self-reported diabetes were found by the end of follow-up.

After taking into account older age, obesity, lack of physical activity, and other risk factors for diabetes, statin use was associated with an almost 50% chance of developing the disease.

Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than adults without diabetes.

In fact, the American Diabetes Association recommends that in addition to lifestyle changes, all people with diabetes take a statin regardless of their cholesterol level or whether they have heart disease.

Study author Annie L. Culver tells WebMD that this recommendation should not change, but clinicians should also stress the importance of lifestyle in lowering heart attack and stroke risk.

“There is a tendency to believe that drugs are the answer, when it is clear that eating well, exercising, and making other lifestyle changes are hugely important for lowering diabetes and cardiovascular risk,” Culver says.

New York University cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, who specializes in treating women with heart disease, agrees that lifestyle is often overlooked when patients are placed on statins.

“Sometimes when people are on statins they think it is a license to eat anything they want,” she says. “This is certainly not the case, especially after menopause when women seem to have a harder time metabolizing sugar. That's why I tell my patients to watch out for starches and sugar.”

Statin, Diabetes Risk Seen in Earlier Studies

It is not clear if statin use caused the increased risk or if the women who took statins shared some other unidentified risk for diabetes.

But the study is not the first to suggest that statins may raise the risk for diabetes.

An analysis of 13 studies, published in February of 2010, found that statin users had a 9% increased risk for diabetes. Another study, published last June, suggested a similar increase in risk among patients taking high doses of statins.

Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital cardiologist Christopher P. Cannon, MD, remains convinced that for most people who take statins to lower their risk for heart attack and stroke, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

“These studies are a reminder that no drug is without side effects, but if there is a risk it is more than likely a very small one,” he says.

A spokesman for Lipitor manufacturer Pfizer Inc. says the drug has been shown in multiple studies to reduce heart attack and stroke risk in high-risk patients, including those with type 2 diabetes.

“We believe the risk of diabetes is outweighed by the [healthy heart] benefits of Lipitor therapy and we encourage patients to work with their physicians to discuss their treatment options,” Pfizer media representative MacKay Jimeson tells WebMD.


Culver, A.L. Archives of Internal Medicine, published online Jan. 9, 2012.

Annie L. Culver, University of Massachusetts Diabetes and Endocrinology Research Center.

Yunsheng Ma, MD, PhD, MPH, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Mass.

Christopher Cannon, MD, cardiovascular division, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston; spokesman, American College of Cardiology.

Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director, New York University Langone Center for Women's Health, New York.

MacKay Jimeson, press officer, Pfizer.

Press release, JAMA Media.

WebMD Health News: “Statins May Be Linked to Diabetes Risk.”

WebMD Health News: "High-Dose Statins May Increase Diabetes Risk.”

American Diabetes Association: “Diabetes Care.”

© 2012 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Women's Health

Find out what women really need.

Use Pill Finder Find it Now See Interactions

Pill Identifier on RxList

  • quick, easy,
    pill identification

Find a Local Pharmacy

  • including 24 hour, pharmacies

Interaction Checker

  • Check potential drug interactions
Search the Medical Dictionary for Health Definitions & Medical Abbreviations

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors