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Height gives clue to cancer

The Cancer Research UK logo
by Cancer Research UK | News

21 July 2011

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Taller people are at increased risk of a wide range of cancers, new research shows today.

Researchers said that the study was important in shedding light on how cancers develop.

Scientists from the Cancer Research UK-funded Million Women Study1 found an increase in women’s cancer risk of about 16 per cent for every 10cm (4 inches) increase in height.

Previous studies have shown that height can affect risk of cancer, but this research confirms the link for a wide range of cancers2, and for women with differing lifestyles and economic backgrounds.

This is the largest study to date of height and cancer risk, including 97,000 cancers in over a million middle-aged UK women whose health was followed for 9 years.3

The study showed that taller women had an increased risk of at least 10 types of cancer, including breast, skin, bowel and ovarian – a wider range than initially thought.

And comparing this study with others, the researchers confirmed a similar link between height and cancer risk for both men and women from different populations worldwide.

Jane Green, lead author of the study based at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, said: “The fact that the link between height and cancer risk seems to be common to many different types of cancer in different people suggests there may be a basic common mechanism, perhaps acting early in peoples’ lives, when they are growing.

“Of course people cannot change their height. And being taller has actually been linked to a lower risk of other conditions, such as heart disease.”

Possible reasons for the link between height and cancer risk include hormone levels related to childhood growth, and in turn to cancer risk in later life. It was also suggested that the link could simply be down to the fact that taller people have more cells in their bodies, and so a greater chance of developing cancerous cell changes.

The height of European adults increased by about 1cm (0.39 inches) per decade during the twentieth century, and the study suggests that this may explain around 10-15 per cent of the rise in cancer cases seen over this period.4

Sara Hiom, director of health information, at Cancer Research UK, said: “Tall people need not be alarmed by these results. Most people are not a lot taller (or shorter) than average, and their height will only have a small effect on their individual cancer risk.

“This study confirms the link between height and cancer paving the way for studies to help us understand why this is so.

“On average, people in the UK have a more than one in three chance of developing cancer in their lifetime. So it’s important that everyone is aware of what is normal for their body and go see their doctor as quickly as possible if they notice any unusual changes.

“And while we can’t control our height, there are many lifestyle choices people can make that we know have a greater impact on reducing the risk of cancer such as not smoking, moderating alcohol, keeping a healthy weight and being physically active.”


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