Lipitor (atorvastatin) is a cholesterol-lowering medication that is routinely used by millions of people. Unfortunately, recent studies have found a link between Lipitor and diabetes — especially for older women after menopause. Although the FDA warned about reports of increased blood-sugar from Lipitor, these warnings may have come too late for many people who took Lipitor and got type-2 diabetes.
Overview: Lipitor and Diabetes
Pfizer’s Lipitor (atorvastatin) reigned as the world’s best-selling medication for more than a decade, after several studies showed that it was the most effective cholesterol-lowering medication on the market. It was widely prescribed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, especially heart attacks and strokes.
Unfortunately, after tens of millions of people used Lipitor, researchers found alarming evidence that it can elevate blood-sugar levels, which may increase the risk of type-2 diabetes.
The association between Lipitor and diabetes is especially concerning because many experts believe that Lipitor is over-prescribed to people who don’t really need it. Although studies have found that Lipitor reduces mortality for people who have high cholesterol and pre-existing cardiovascular problems, there is no clear evidence that it benefits people who only have high cholesterol.
Type-2 diabetes is a chronic metabolic condition that involves insulin resistance in cells, which causes problems with blood-sugar control after a person eats a meal. If it is not controlled, it can grow progressively worse and lead to many life-threatening complications.
Higher Diabetes Risk for Older Women on Lipitor
The medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine published a study in January 2012 that associated Lipitor with a 50% increased risk of diabetes for post-menopausal women.
After evaluating medical records on nearly 162,000 women over the age of 50 who took a statin (a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs that includes Lipitor), they found that 10% of them developed diabetes within nine years, compared to 6.4% of women who did not take a statin.
Lipitor and Diabetes Risk Factors
For most people, the possible increased risk of diabetes from Lipitor is small, and the benefits of using Lipitor probably outweigh the risk. However, even a small increased risk is concerning for individuals with multiple risk factors for diabetes. This risk should be discussed with a doctor.
Risk factors for diabetes include:
- Obesity or being overweight
- Impaired blood-sugar control or insulin resistance
- High blood-sugar levels
- High triglycerides (blood fat)
- High blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Age (over 45 years old)
FDA Safety Warning for Lipitor and Diabetes
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published this Drug Safety Communication in February 2012 to warn about “reports of increased blood sugar and glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels” associated with Lipitor and other cholesterol-lowering drugs in the statin class.
Increased glycosylated hemoglobin (Hba1c) in the blood indicates poor blood-sugar control and a higher risk of cardiovascular problems and kidney damage.
Unfortunately, by the time the FDA warned about the potential link between Lipitor and diabetes, it was too late for many people who already had the disease.
Research and Studies of Lipitor and Diabetes
Two major clinical trials have linked Lipitor to diabetes and problems with blood-sugar control:
- Justification for the Use of Statins in Primary Prevention: an Intervention Trial Evaluating Rosuvastatin (JUPITER): This study specifically investigated side effects of Crestor (rosuvastatin) — another statin in the same class as Lipitor — and found a 27% increase in the number of physician-reported cases of diabetes compared to a placebo.
- Pravastatin or Atorvastatin Evaluation and Infection Therapy – Thrombolysis In Myocardial Infarction 22 (PROVE-IT TIMI 22) sub-study: This study found that Lipitor could worsen blood-sugar control.
More studies of Lipitor and diabetes:
- This study published in The Lancet in February 2009 found that statins were associated with a 9% increased risk of diabetes.
- This study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in March 2011 found that higher doses of Lipitor were associated with higher risks of diabetes.
- This study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in June 2011 found that statins were associated with a 12% increased risk of diabetes, or one extra case for every 498 people who use a statin.