Study Links Women’s Height to Cancer

A new study of nearly 145,000 post-menopausal women found a strong correlation between height and cancer risk.

Height is primarily an indicator a marker of factors that boost cancer risk rather than a risk factor itself, the study says. These factors include genes, nutrition, diet, and other environmental influences that affect growth early in life and carry on to adulthood. Photo: bilwander/Flickr

A new study says that woman’s chances of developing cancer after menopause increase with her height.

“We showed that the link between greater height and increased total cancer risk is similar across many different populations from Asia, Australasia, Europe, and North America,” Dr. Jane Green, lead author of the study, who is based at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, said, according to a press release.

“The link between height and cancer risk seems to be common to many different types of cancer and in different people; suggesting that there may be a basic common mechanism, perhaps acting early in peoples’ lives, when they are growing,” she said.

Taller women are at higher risk of developing cancer, but that doesn’t mean taller women need more mammograms or that shorter women should skip screening tests.

Among nearly 145,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79, researchers found that height was more strongly associated with cancer than such established risk factors as obesity.

As the Science World Report writes, for every 10 centimeter increase in height (or 4 inch increase) it can be associated with a 13 percent increase in overall cancer risk, according to the group’s analysis of 144,701 women participating in the Women’s Health Initiative.

According to the American Cancer Society, the average woman’s lifetime risk of cancer is 38.2 percent.  This is a major, long-term research program established by the National Institutes of Health in 1991.

A 2011 British study of more than 1 million women found that every 4-inch increase in height corresponded to a 16% hike in cancer risk. Studies of Asian populations show similar associations across different types of cancer. Other studies show taller people are less likely to have a stroke and develop heart disease.

Geoffrey Kabat, lead author of the study and a senior epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York and his colleagues say they took more than a dozen potential risk factors into account – including age, use of oral contraceptives, smoking history, alcohol intake, age at their first menstrual period, and education – and they still found that women’s height was linked to their cancer risk, says Reuters.

However, the study did not find why taller women were diagnosed with cancer more often, but some possibilities include; diet and infections as a child, as well as growth hormone influences.

“Another possibility is that height predicts cancer risk because taller people have more cells (including stem cells) and thus a greater opportunity for mutations leading to malignant transformation,” the researchers said.

Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the study should not raise alarm for the tall, though it does provide additional evidence that greater height is associated with cancer.

“The increase in risk is modest and is balanced by a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in taller people, so there is no reason for those of us who are tall to panic,” Willett, who was not involved in the study, said in an email.

“Most importantly, research to understand the reason for the extra risk in taller people may lead us to new ways to prevent or treat cancer.”

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