Height and cancer: Is there a link?

Kanaka Menehune_WaikikiLast month, the press was awash with news that taller people have a higher risk of developing cancer. Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm presented results from an analysis of more than 5 million Swedes in which they found that for every 10cm extra height when fully grown, the risk of cancer was increased by 18% in women and 10% in men. In particular, taller women had a 20% higher risk of breast cancer while taller men and women had a 30% higher risk of skin cancer. These results are generally consistent with findings from previous studies that have investigated the potential link between height and cancer. For example, the U.K Million Women’s Study found that for every 10cm greater height, a woman’s risk of developing any cancer increased by 16%. In that study, a statistically significant link was found between height and higher risks for cancers of the colorectum, breast, uterus, kidney, ovary, central nervous system and for lymphomas. As someone who is 1.93m tall, should I be worried that I am at higher risk of developing certain cancers?

Clearly, these findings are from well-conducted, population-based investigations and the consistency of results between the studies from different populations and countries suggests that the link might be real. Researchers have offered several explanations for why taller people might have a greater risk of cancer. One possibility is that taller people have a greater total number of cells and since cancer arises from mutations in a single cell, it is plausible that the greater the number of cells, the higher the number of cells at risk of acquiring cancer-causing mutations. So for example, skin cancer risk might increase with skin surface area, which is related to the square of height. Adult height may also be a proxy for early life exposures that could be relevant for cancer development for example nutrition, socioeconomic status and hormones. Circulating concentrations of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-I) are strongly correlated with childhood growth and in adulthood, are associated with risk of colorectal, prostate, and both premenopausal and postmenopausal breast cancers.

More work is needed to understand the relationship between height and cancer and in particular the underlying biological mechanisms. Components of height such as leg or upper body length, and how these are related to cancer risk are also of interest since these might be specific to early life exposures and could tell us something about how cancer develops. Genetic markers of height and their association with cancer may also help to explain the biological pathways involved. If height is indeed a risk factor for cancer, what can taller people do about it? We cannot change our adult height and the lifestyle choices aimed at reducing cancer risk such as not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising apply to all of us – tall or short. However, studying the height-cancer link could provide important clues on how cancers start and could eventually lead to important preventive measures.

Marc Gunter

Marc Gunter

Dr. Gunter is Head of the Section of Nutrition and Metabolism at IARC. He is a molecular epidemiologist and his main research focus is the role of metabolic and endocrine pathways in cancer development and prognosis.

Research Interests: Cancer Aetiology and Prevention; Hormones and Metabolism; Obesity and metabolic syndrome; Biomarkers
Marc Gunter

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