A study of more than 5 million Swedish men and women suggests that the taller you are, the greater your risk of cancer.
For every 4 additional inches of adult height, the study found that cancer risk was linked to an 18 percent increased cancer risk in women and 11 percent in men. Taller women had a 20 percent greater risk of developing breast cancer, the study reported. And for both men and women, the risk of developing melanoma increased by about 30 percent for every 4 inches of height, the researchers said.
“This study confirms what other studies have shown,” said the American Cancer Society’s Susan Gapstur, who was not involved in the study. She added that previous research has also found a link between height and colon cancer.
But Gapstur, who is vice president of epidemiology at the society, cautioned that these findings only show an association between height and cancer risk. They do not prove that being tall causes cancer.
She stressed that height alone is not destiny. “Being tall doesn’t mean that you will develop cancer,” she said.
So how might height and cancer risk be related?
Gapstur said that height may be a sign of cancer risk. “Height may be a reflection of early age exposures. This study may provide a window to understand some early life exposures, since adult height is a reflection of genetics and what you are exposed to while you are growing up,” she said.
The results of the study were scheduled to be presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology in Barcelona, Spain. Findings presented at meetings are typically viewed as preliminary until they’ve been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For the study, researchers reviewed information on 5.5 million people born in Sweden between 1938 and 1991. Their health was tracked beginning in 1958, or from when they were 20 (for those born in later years), until the end of 2011. Adult heights ranged from about 3 feet 3 inches to slightly more than 7 feet, the research revealed.
Lead researcher Dr. Emelie Benyi is from the Karolinska Institute in Solna, Sweden. In a news release from the endocrinology society, she said, “To our knowledge, this is the largest study performed on linkage between height and cancer including both women and men.”
Benyi stressed that these findings do not mean that every tall man or women will develop cancer. “As the cause of cancer is multifactorial, it is difficult to predict what impact our results have on cancer risk at the individual level,” she said.
The researchers are planning another study to see if height affects the risk of dying from cancer. “Our studies show that taller individuals are more likely to develop cancer, but it is unclear so far if they also have a higher risk of dying from cancer or have an increased mortality overall,” Benyi said.
For more on cancer and height, visit the Canadian Cancer Society.