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Diet and obesity linked to 10 common cancers

A high BMI is associated with ten common types of cancer.
A high BMI is associated with ten common types of cancer.

A high body mass index (BMI) increases the risk of developing 10 of the most common cancers and may be responsible for more than 12,000 cases in the UK every year, according to the largest study of its kind.

Published in The Lancet, followedmore than 5 million adults in the UK in order to assess potential links between BMI and the 22 most common types of site specific cancer.

Led by Dr Krishnan Bhaskaran from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK, the team reported that BMI was associated with 17 out of the 22 specific types of cancer examined – and that in the case of ten types of cancer there was a clear relationship between increasing BMI and increasing risk of cancer.

The UK-based researchers estimate that over 12,000 cases of these 10 cancers each year are attributable to being overweight or obese, and calculate that if average BMI in the population continues to increase, there could be over 3,500 extra cancers every year as a result.

"The number of people who are overweight or obese is rapidly increasing both in the UK and worldwide,” said Bhaskaran. “It is well recognised that this is likely to cause more diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

“Our results show that if these trends continue, we can also expect to see substantially more cancers as a result.”

Writing in a linked comment, Dr Peter Campbell from the American Cancer Society, said there is ‘sufficient’ evidence that obesity is an important cause of unnecessary suffering and death from many forms of cancer.

“More research is not needed to justify, or even demand, policy changes aimed at curbing overweight and obesity,” said Campbell. “Some of these policy strategies have been enumerated recently, all of which focus on reducing caloric intake or increasing physical activity, and include taxes on calorically dense, nutritionally sparse foods (eg, sugar-sweetened beverages); subsidies for healthier foods, especially in economically disadvantaged groups; agricultural policy changes; and urban planning aimed at encouraging walking and other modes of physical activity.”

“Research strategies that identify population-wide or community-based interventions and policies that effectively reduce overweight and obesity should be particularly encouraged and supported,” he said. “Moreover, we need a political environment, and politicians with sufficient courage, to implement such policies effectively."

Study details

Using data from general practitioner records in the UK's Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD), the researchers identified 5.24 million individuals aged 16 and older who were cancer-free and had been followed for an average of 7.5 years. The risk of developing 22 of the most common cancers, which represent 90% of the cancers diagnosed in the UK, was measured according to BMI after adjusting for individual factors such as age, sex, smoking status, and socioeconomic status.

A total of 166,955 people developed one of the 22 cancers studied over the follow-up period, with BMI associated with 17 out of the 22 specific types of cancer examined.

According to Bhaskaran, for every five kg per m² increase in BMI, there was a clear link with higher risk of certain cancers: of the uterus (62% increase), gallbladder (31%), kidney (25%), cervix (10%), thyroid (9%), and leukaemia (9%).

Higher BMI also increased the overall risk of liver (19% increase), colon (10%), ovarian (9%), and breast cancers (5%), but the effects on these cancers varied by underlying BMI and by individual-level factors such as sex and menopausal status, said the team – who noted that even within normal BMI ranges, higher BMI was associated with increased risk of some cancers and that come cancers seemed to be at a slightly lower risk from an increased BMI.

"There was a lot of variation in the effects of BMI on different cancers,” said Bhaskaran. “For example, risk of cancer of the uterus increased substantially at higher body mass index; for other cancers, we saw more modest increases in risk, or no effect at all.”

“For some cancers like breast cancer occurring in younger women before the menopause, there even seemed to be a lower risk at higher BMI. This variation tells us that BMI must affect cancer risk through a number of different processes, depending on the cancer type.”

BMI impact

Based on the results, the researchers estimate that excess weight could account for 41% of uterine and 10% or more of gallbladder, kidney, liver, and colon cancers in the UK.

They also estimate that a population-wide 1 kg/m² increase in average BMI (roughly an extra 3 to 4 kg, or 8 to 10 pounds, per adult), which would occur every 12 years or so based on recent trends, would result in an additional 3,790 cases of these 10 cancers in the UK each year.

Source: The Lancet
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60892-8
“Body-mass index and risk of 22 specific cancers: a population-based cohort study of 5·24 million UK adults”
Authors: Krishnan BhaskaranIan Douglas, et al

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