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Impoverished background affects cancer risk later in life

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by Cancer Research UK | News

19 May 2016

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A person’s risk of developing some cancers is affected by how they grew up, according to a new report by Cancer Research UK scientists published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.*

“Children who lead healthy lives with strong family and social support will develop healthier behaviours that are likely to reduce their risk of cancer later in life.” – Dr Jyotsna Vohra

The report, based on 22 studies of the subject, found that people who were brought up in the poorest housing conditions, and those whose father had a low status job had a higher risk of developing and dying from bowel cancer. Evidence suggested that poor diet early in life may play a role.

There was also a consistent link between stomach cancer and living conditions. The researchers found that people in less advantaged families were more likely to be exposed to a type of bacteria called Helicobactor pylori, a common cause of stomach ulcers worldwide which also increases the risk of stomach cancer.

Researchers found that poor living conditions as a child were linked to a higher risk of death overall. Around half of the studies found a higher risk of adult death from lung cancer when their father had a low-income job, prolonged exposure to smoke, more siblings, and lived in worse housing conditions as a child.

This may be because children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to smoke as adults. And previous studies have shown that the chances of a child smoking are much higher if they have at least one parent who smokes. Around 1.2 million children in the UK live in poverty in households where adults smoke.

The team gathered information from 22 reports examining people’s lifestyles from a young age – mostly in the UK and Northern Europe.

The most common way to measure a child’s living conditions was by their father’s occupation – used in 18 of the 22 papers.  Other measures included number of rooms per household, people per room, number of siblings and whether the family owned a car.

The researchers linked this information to whether cancer developed as an adult.

Dr Jyotsna Vohra, lead author and Cancer Research UK’s head of policy research centre, said: “Children who lead healthy lives with strong family and social support will develop healthier behaviours that are likely to reduce their risk of cancer later in life.

“We already knew there was a link between poor living conditions as a child and heart disease. But our research provides more evidence of the link between a child’s surroundings and their risk of developing cancer later in life.”

Alison Cox, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer prevention, said: “Children need a healthy start in life as this can influence their future health and risk of diseases like cancer. As more than four in 10 cancer cases are preventable it’s important that Government policies protect future generations from cancer.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.