Background: Low plasma levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of cancer, but whether this association is causal is unclear.
Methods: We studied 10 613 participants in the Copenhagen City Heart Study (CCHS) and 59 566 participants in the Copenhagen General Population Study, 6816 of whom had developed cancer by May 2009. Individuals were genotyped for PCSK9 R46L (rs11591147), ABCG8 D19H (rs11887534), and APOE R112C (rs429358) and R158C (rs7412) polymorphisms, all of which are associated with lifelong reduced plasma LDL cholesterol levels. Plasma LDL cholesterol was calculated using the Friedewald equation in samples in which the triglyceride level was less than 354 mg/dL and measured directly by colorimetry for samples with higher triglyceride levels. Risk of cancer was estimated prospectively using Cox proportional hazards regression analyses and cross-sectionally by logistic regression analyses. Causality was studied using instrumental variable analysis. All statistical tests were two-sided.
Results: In the CCHS, compared with plasma LDL cholesterol levels greater than the 66th percentile (>158 mg/dL), those lower than the 10th percentile (< 87 mg/dL) were associated with a 43% increase (95% confidence interval [CI] = 15% to 79% increase) in the risk of cancer. The polymorphisms were associated with up to a 38% reduction (95% CI = 36% to 41% reduction) in LDL cholesterol levels but not with increased risk of cancer. The causal odds ratio for cancer for a 50% reduction in plasma LDL cholesterol level due to all the genotypes in both studies combined was 0.96 (95% CI = 0.87 to 1.05), whereas the hazard ratio of cancer for a 50% reduction in plasma LDL cholesterol level in the CCHS was 1.10 (95% CI = 1.01 to 1.21) (P for causal odds ratio vs observed hazard ratio = .03).
Conclusion: Low plasma LDL cholesterol levels were robustly associated with an increased risk of cancer, but genetically decreased LDL cholesterol was not. This finding suggests that low LDL cholesterol levels per se do not cause cancer.