WOMEN'S HEALTH
July 9, 2014

A New Health Threat from High Cholesterol

Women with high cholesterol are more likely to develop breast cancer. But there's a possible treatment.

Cholesterol has been linked to heart disease for a long time, but its relationship with cancer has been less clear. Last year a study suggested that — in mice, anyway — high cholesterol was connected to the development of breast cancer.

Now it appears that high cholesterol and cancer are very likely linked in women, too.

“We found that women with high cholesterol had a significantly greater chance of developing breast cancer,” an author of the study, Rahul Potluri, said in a news release.

Statins might be a relatively simple, and inexpensive, way to help reduce the risk of breast cancer in certain women.

The researchers studied roughly 664,000 women people in the UK over 13 years. Of these, 23,000 had high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia) and 9,300 developed breast cancer. Over 500 of the women had both high cholesterol and breast cancer.

Women with high cholesterol had about a 64% higher risk of developing breast cancer, compared to women with normal cholesterol.

The study found a strong association between high cholesterol and breast cancer, but it only points to a Correlational studyCorrelational study between the two variables — and there could be other factors at play, like body weight or lifestyle factors such as diet or exercise.

“…[W]e can't conclude that high cholesterol causes breast cancer, but the strength of this association warrants further investigation,” Potluri said.

One promising treatment possibility is that cholesterol-lowering statins may not only help reduce cholesterol, but they may also help reduce the risk of breast cancer. That hypothesis hasn’t been confirmed yet, but if it is demonstrated with another study, statins might be a relatively simple, and inexpensive, way to reduce the risk of breast cancer in certain women.

“Statins are cheap, widely available and relatively safe,” said Potluri. “We are potentially heading towards a clinical trial in 10-15 years to test the effect of statins on the incidence of breast cancer. If such a trial is successful, statins may have a role in the prevention of breast cancer especially in high risk groups, such as women with high cholesterol.”

In the meantime, whether you’re on statins or not, and whether you have high cholesterol or not, it’s best to try to keep cholesterol levels as healthy as possible by making good lifestyle choices.

Certain foods, like oats, nuts, soy protein, and fruits and vegetables, are known to have cholesterol-lowering properties. Other foods, like ice cream, whole milk, butter, and fried foods, are known to increase it. Exercise is, of course, a great way to help keep cholesterol low.

The story on cholesterol keeps getting more complicated. One fact that stays constant is that even though certain types of cholesterol are better than others, it’s generally smart to keep total cholesterol in check.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Manchester. It will be presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s annual conference, Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology (FCVB) 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. The research should be considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-review journal.

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