Height Linked to Women’s Cancer Risk? New Study Suggests Yes

by | July 26, 2013 at 10:29 AM | Health, Pink Ribbon


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Melanie Haiken, Forbes.com Contributor

Height does matter – at least it may when it comes to cancer risk. That’s the surprising news from a study published in the online edition of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention showing that the taller women are, the greater their risk for numerous types of cancer.

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Looking at data from 20,928 postmenopausal women with cancer, researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, led by epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat, PhD, were surprised to find that cancer risk correlated more strongly with height than with other commonly cited risk factors, such as being overweight.

Note: The study looked for an association between height and cancer; it did not document or prove cause and effect.

The analysis was done using data from 144,701 women between the ages of 50 and 79 included in the Women’s Health Initiative. The researchers looked at the correlation between height (as measured when the women were enrolled) and cancer risk. They looked both at risk of all cancers combined and risk of 19 specific cancers. At the 12-year follow-up point, 20,928 women had developed cancer; the researchers then used hazard analysis to look at cancer risk per 10 cm height increase.

Here’s what they found: For every 10 cm (a little less than 4 inches) height increase, there was a 13 percent risk increase for all types of cancer combined. More specifically, increased risk was found for cancers of the thyroid, rectum, kidney, endometrium, colon, ovary, and breast, and with multiple myeloma and melanoma. The risk increase ranged from 13 percent for breast cancer to 29 percent increase for multiple myeloma and thyroid cancer.

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And lest you think that height was likely confounded by other factors, Kaplan’s team controlled for a long list of other cancer risk factors including age, waist circumference, weight, smoking, education level, age of menopause, use of birth control pills and hormone therapy, and overall health status (self-reported), and alcohol intake. It’s important to note, though, that the connection with height is likely due to other factors that influence height, particularly in childhood. According to the study, height should be considered a “marker” for “exposures that influence cancer risk, rather than a risk factor itself.”

As far as how height might influence cancer risk, the epidemiologists suspect that genetic variations (specifically “single-nucleotide polymorphisms”)  linked with height and cancer risk may be responsible or partially responsible for the association and plan additional studies to investigate those connections.

The study was planned to look more deeply into an association that had already been found in numerous prospective studies, including this one published in The Lancet Oncology and this 2010 analysis of data from Asian populations.

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The height – cancer risk association may hold true for men as well; this 2006 UK study involving men published in the Annals of Oncology found a similar association.

Clearly, lots more study is needed before a causal link between height and increased cancer risk is proven. But it’s always good to be aware of one’s risk factors, and those of us who are tall might want to add this one to the list.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.