In a study of more than 50,000 participants in the Nurses Health Study, women who took statins, particularly those who had diabetes, were less likely to have gallstones that required surgical removal of the gallbladder than those who didn’t take the drugs.
The study suggested that overall, current statin use slashed the risk of having gallbladder removal surgery by 18% -- no matter how long a woman had been taking the drug.
Women with diabetes who had been taking statins for two or more years reduced their risk of surgery by 75%, however, while those who had been taking them for less time had a 33% reduction in risk, compared with nonusers.
The main reason people have their gallbladders removed is to prevent painful gallstone attacks and possible complications, including inflammation and infection of the gallbladder and inflammation of the pancreas, or pancreatitis.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology.
Further Statin Study Needed
Researcher Chung-Jyi Tsai, MD, ScD, of the division of digestive diseases and nutrition at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, says the striking reduction in risk among women with diabetes makes sense.
“Statins improve insulin resistance in people with diabetes but not in nondiabetics,” he tells WebMD. Since insulin resistance is a known risk factor for diabetes, it is not surprising that people with diabetes would reap the biggest benefits, he says.
How do statins reduce the risk of disabling gallstones that require surgery in people without diabetes?
The jury’s still out on that, too, but Tsai suspects it’s because they can reduce cholesterol in the bile, the substance produced in the liver, stored in the gallbladder and then released into the intestine to help digest fat.
Too much cholesterol in the bile can cause gallstones, he explains.
Tsai stresses that the study doesn’t prove that statins prevent gallstones and that further research is needed.
Phillip Jaffee, MD, of the Gastroenterology Center of Connecticut in Hamden, and a member of the committee that chose which stories to highlight at the meeting, tells WebMD that until the findings are confirmed in other large, well-designed studies, women with diabetes should not take statins to prevent gallstones.
The study included 53,611 female nurses who were free of gallstones in 1994. Every two years, the women were asked whether they took cholesterol-lowering drugs and if they had undergone gallbladder surgery, which Tsai says is a surrogate for gallstones.
By 2000, 2,414 women who did not take statins and 167 women who took statins had gallbladder surgery.