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Surprising Good Side Effects of Your Meds

New research finds some common drugs can help prevent cancer, improve heart health and even enhance creativity

En español l Fear of harmful side effects leads far too many patients to avoid taking their medications. In fact, it's a key reason half of all prescription drugs aren't taken as prescribed, says Lars Osterberg, M.D., a clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University. But consider this: Some medications have health-boosting benefits that go beyond what the medication was prescribed to treat. That alone is no reason to start an Rx, of course, though it is motivation to follow doctor's orders. "Medications can be very powerful — but only when taken correctly," says Osterberg.

Here are eight types of drugs that offer unique health perks.

Pills (Adam Voorhes)

Your meds may have health-boosting side effects. — Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

The Drug: Flu shot

Potential Perk: Heart disease and stroke protection

The Evidence: A new review of research finds that getting a flu shot could cut your risk of having a heart attack or stroke by 48 percent. Study coauthor Jacob A. Udell, M.D., of Women's College Hospital in Toronto speculates that getting vaccinated "may block the inflammatory response our bodies mount to combat a flu infection, which protects arterial plaques from rupturing and causing a cardiac event." So after the doozy of a flu season we just had, consider this one more reason to line up next year.

The Drugs: Statins to lower cholesterol

Potential Perk: More successful cancer treatment

The Evidence: People diagnosed with cancer who were taking statins daily had a 15 percent lower risk of death compared with non–statin users, according to a 2012 Danish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Quite simply, statins reduce the amount of cholesterol in the body, and since the waxy substance is a vital building block for cells, "a shortage of cholesterol may inhibit growth of rapidly dividing cancer cells," says study coauthor Stig E. Bojesen, M.D., of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. One-quarter of people 45 or older pop cholesterol-lowering statins.

The Drug: Metformin to treat diabetes

Potential Perk: Avoiding breast cancer

The Evidence: Metformin helps combat diabetes by increasing insulin sensitivity and decreasing the liver's production of glucose, thereby lowering blood sugar levels. A 2012 review of seven studies published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment showed that metformin is also linked with a 17 percent lower risk of breast cancer.

Women taking metformin for at least three years had a 25 percent lower risk, possibly due to their improved insulin response. Researchers speculate that higher insulin levels may fuel cancer cells. Metformin also is associated with weight loss, so weight management could play a role, too.

Next page: Beta-blockers, dopamine agonists and adalimumab. »

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