STATINS, drugs which lower cholesterol, are back in the spotlight, with a recent American study demonstrating a massive 36 per cent increase in the risk of type two diabetes in those prescribed the medications.

The research, headed by Dr Jill Cranwell, from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, observed just over 3,200 individuals, over a ten year period, who were already at high risk of developing diabetes.

The link between statins and diabetes has been researched previously, but until now, it was thought that the increased risk of developing diabetes due to statins was a more modest ten to 12 per cent.

It is not exactly clear how statins are linked to diabetes. It seems that they either reduce the production of insulin, or reduce the body’s sensitivity to normal levels of insulin. Insulin is one of the major hormones involved in controlling blood sugars.

As one of the most commonly prescribed medicines, this will come as potentially very frightening news to the six million UK residents currently taking a statin.

STATINS work by reducing the amount of LDL cholesterol, the so-called “bad cholesterol”, in the bloodstream. It is this type of cholesterol that is implicated in narrowing of blood vessels, leading to heart attacks and strokes.

They are typically prescribed if your risk of a heart attack or stroke, collectively known as a cardiovascular event, will be more than ten per cent in the next ten years.

Unfortunately, statins are associated with multiple side effects including muscle aches, low mood and even kidney failure in rare cases. And although Diabetes UK states that nearly 99 per cent of people will not benefit from being on a statin, the one per cent who will means that thousands of devastating heart attacks and strokes are prevented every year.

AT the same time, diabetes is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events, blindness and amputation; all appalling consequences. So are we trapped between a rock and a hard place?

Despite standing behind their work, the researchers themselves advise that “a potential modest increase in diabetes risk clearly needs to be balanced against the consistent and highly significant reduction in myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke and cardiovascular death associated with statin treatment”.

The study also has limitations in that it followed patients who were already at high risk of diabetes, and it has been suggested that statins merely “unmask “diabetes, rather than causing it.

Diabetes itself is associated with raised levels of cholesterol and indeed a statin is often part of the treatment regimen.

Current advice is that if you are on a statin, you do not discontinue it without a discussion with your regular doctor. The benefits of statins and their proven track record cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, in high risk individuals, it is important for both doctors and patients to be wary to the potential for developing diabetes.

A healthy lifestyle may reduce the chances of developing diabetes, while regular monitoring of blood sugars will detect it early on.

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