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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.

The Drugs: Beta-blockers to lower blood pressure

Potential Perk: Reduced risk of dementia

The Evidence: Because hypertension impairs blood flow to the brain, it's one risk factor for developing vascular dementia. In new research from Lon White, M.D., of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, men with hypertension who took beta-blockers had about 50 percent fewer vascular brain lesions and up to 40 percent fewer Alzheimer's disease lesions, compared with those who had high blood pressure but weren't being treated. Although results are preliminary, White suggests that since beta-blockers lower pulse rates and enhance blood flow, they may also reduce excess strain on blood vessels in the brain.

The Drugs: Levodopa and other dopamine agonists for Parkinson's disease

Potential Perk: A surge in creativity

The Evidence: For Parkinson's patients, tremors, loss of fine motor skills and muscle stiffness can make artistic activities that require dexterity more challenging. All the more surprising, then, that some patients develop new and impressive creative abilities, including painting and writing, during treatment, according to Rivka Inzelberg, M.D., a professor in the department of neurology at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel.

Published this year in Behavioral Neuroscience, Inzelberg's review identifies two underlying factors — levodopa and dopamine agonists, often used together in PD treatment to improve motor control. Both increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that may be involved in brain pathways that "awaken" creativity.

The Drug: Adalimumab (Humira) to treat psoriasis

Potential Perk: Relief for depression

The Evidence: Characterized by red, irritated and scaly skin, psoriasis is often accompanied by depression. Research indicates that sufferers are nearly 40 percent more likely to have depresion than are people without the condition. That makes recent findings in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology even more important: Patients with moderate to severe psoriasis taking 40 milligrams of adalimumab every other week for 12 weeks improved their score on a depression test by six points, compared with the group given a placebo. (Scores decreased from 42.9 to 36.2, on average; 50 or higher indicates depression.)

Dermatologist and study coauthor Alan Menter, M.D., says that adalimumab reduces TNF-alpha, a chemical that causes psoriasis symptoms and is sometimes elevated in people with depression.

The Drug: Aspirin to prevent heart attacks

Potential Perk: Stronger odds of colon and prostate cancer survival

The Evidence: For men diagnosed with prostate cancer, a daily dose of aspirin was associated with a 57 percent lower risk of death at 10 years, compared with those not taking aspirin, reported the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2012. In another study in the New England Journal of Medicine, colon cancer survivors whose cancer had a specific type of mutation and who regularly took aspirin had much lower cancer-related mortality rates (3 percent after five years, compared with 26 percent of those who weren't taking aspirin). Researchers speculate that aspirin may activate a protein that inhibits cancer cell growth.

The Drug: Antidepressant paroxetine (Paxil)

Potential Perk: Lower risk of heart failure

The Evidence: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by balancing out the serotonin in the brain to improve mood. One SSRI, Paxil, may also guard against heart problems by inhibiting the function of GRK2, an enzyme that's overproduced during heart failure, according to research published in the journal ACS Chemical Biology last year. Researchers have just begun to examine the connection, though results are promising, says study coauthor John Tesmer, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Other SSRIs don't seem to make a difference.

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