New research suggests that use of statins, a class of drugs taken by millions of Americans with high cholesterol, is linked to a higher risk for developing cataracts.

Dr. Jessica Leuschen, of the San Antonio Military Medical Center, Texas, and colleagues report their findings in a paper published online in JAMA Ophthalmology.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cataracts, a predominantly age-related condition where the lens of the eye becomes cloudy, is the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

Studies like this are especially important because as the US population ages, the incidence of cataracts is likely to increase. So any modifiable risk factors should be a public health concern, the researchers explain in their background information.

They also say previous studies that have looked at the link between statin use and cataracts have produced conflicting results. Some say there is an increased risk, others say there is not, and some show inconsistent associations.

For instance, the results of a large review of published research presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2013, found that statins lower risk of cataracts, while an earlier study published in the August 2012 issue of Optometry and Vision Science suggested statin use is linked to increased risk of cataracts.

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Researchers found that patients who used statins had a 27% higher chance of developing cataracts than non-users.

For their study, Dr. Leuschen and colleagues compared the risk for developing cataracts between closely-matched statin users and non-users.

From a military healthcare database, they identified over 46,000 patients that met their study criteria, including over 13,600 statin users and 32,600 non-users.

They defined users as patients who had received at least a 90-day supply of statins, and non-users as patients never having received a statin during the period of study, which was based on prescriptions from fiscal year 2005, and for which there was patient data from 2003 to 2010.

The researchers then sifted through the patient data to pair up statin users with non-users as closely as possible, for instance by age, sex, medical conditions – a total of 44 variables in all.

They managed to find nearly 7,000 closely-matched pairs of statin users and non-users.

Their analyses found the risk for cataract was higher among statin users, compared with non-users. When they took into account other known risk factors, this showed statin users had a 27% higher chance of developing cataracts than non-users.

In their conclusion, they urge doctors to carefully consider the risks versus the benefits of statin use, especially for primary prevention, and they call for further studies.