A new study from Denmark found that people who regularly used statins to lower cholesterol and then received a cancer diagnosis were 15% less likely to die from cancer or any other cause than cancer patients who had never used statins.

Statins are the most commonly prescribed drug for lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease.

The researchers, from the University of Copenhagen, write about their findings in the 8 November early online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

They decided to look at the link between statin use and cancer death because, as cholesterol is necessary for cell growth, it has been suggested that reducing it may limit the cellular proliferation required for cancer growth and spread.

They did not look at whether taking statins affected people’s risk for developing cancer.

For the study, the researchers used Danish national databases to find all patients who had received a diagnosis of cancer between 1995 and 2007, with follow-up until end of 2009.

This yielded data on a total of 295,925 patients aged 40 and over, of whom 18,721 had used statins regularly before their cancer diagnosis and 277,204 had never used statins.

When they analyzed the data statistically using hazard ratios, the researchers found among patients who had regularly taken statins, deaths from cancer were reduced by 15%, as were deaths from all causes.

Eric Jacobs, Strategic Director of Pharmacoepidemiology at the American Cancer Society, says in a statement about the study that while the findings are “exciting”:

“… it does not mean people with cancer should start using statins in the hopes of improving their progress.”

He says other factors could be behind the lowered rates of death. For example, it may be that some of the people taking statins could also have been taking aspirin, which some studies published recently have linked to improved survival from cancer (in August 2012 Jacobs and his team carried out a review of such evidence).

Jacobs also points out that randomized trials of people taking statins to reduced risk of developing heart disease did not show benefits against cancer – and yet they should have, according to the findings from this Danish study.

He suggests further research is now needed to “clarify if and how statins might influence survival in cancer patients”.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD