Lower Cholesterol May Lessen Risk of Some Cancers


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THURSDAY, Nov. 5 (Health.com) — Most people know that healthy cholesterol levels can help protect your heart. But new research suggests another potential benefit: a lower risk of developing some types of cancer.

In fact, low total cholesterol is associated with about 60% less risk of the most aggressive form of prostate cancer, and higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL) may protect against lung, liver, and other cancers, according to two studies published this week in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

That’s quite a reversal of fortune for low cholesterol, which has, in the past, been associated with a higher cancer risk. The new studies suggest that low cholesterol may not deserve its bad reputation, earned from a series of studies in the 1980s that said people with low cholesterol might be at risk of cancer.

In fact, cholesterol may drop in people with undiagnosed cancer, meaning that low cholesterol may be a result—not a cause—of cancer.

In the first study, men with HDL cholesterol above roughly 55 mg/dL had an 11% decrease in overall cancer risk, including lung and liver cancer. (HDL levels between 40 and 50 are average for men.) The study, conducted by National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers who looked at about 29,000 male smokers in Finland over an 18-year period, is the largest to show a relationship between HDL and cancer.

“Very few studies measured [HDL], and any relationship between HDL and overall cancer risk had therefore not been adequately evaluated,” the NCI’s Demetrius Albanes, MD, the lead author of the study, said at a press briefing.

While the findings are new and intriguing, more research needs to be conducted to confirm a link between HDL and cancer risk reduction.

“[It’s] a very new, exciting question, but we need to do a great deal more research before we have any clear answers,” says Eric Jacobs, PhD, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the studies. For his part, Dr. Albanes stressed that the results need to be confirmed, especially in women and nonsmokers.

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