There are a host of factors that contribute to cancer — toxins such as nicotine and environmental exposures including ultraviolet radiation and pollutants — but could a person’s height be a tumor promoter as well? It might if you’re a woman; a woman’s risk for a wide range of cancers rises with her height, a new study published in the Lancet Oncology shows.
Taller women are more likely to develop a range of cancers, including those of the breast, ovary, uterus, bowel, blood and skin. Researchers found that a woman’s cancer risk rises by 16% for every 4-inch increase in height – regardless of her birth year, socioeconomic status, alcohol consumption, physical activity level and other factors typically linked to cancer risk. The link between height and cancer also held strong across populations from North America, Asia, Europe and Australia, according to lead study author Jane Green from the University of Oxford.
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The scientists studied 1.3 million middle-aged women in Britain between 1996 and 2001 as part of the Million Women Study, which investigates the influence of reproductive and lifestyle factors on women’s health. The participants ranged in height from about 5 feet 1 inch to 5 feet 10 inches, with most women measuring around 5 feet 5 inches. Over an average follow-up of about 10 years, the women at the taller end of the spectrum developed more cancers than those who were shorter.
Why taller women are more likely to develop cancer is still unclear, but scientists have a couple of guesses. “One possibility is that taller people may have higher levels of growth-related hormones, both in childhood and in adulthood, and these growth-related hormones may modestly increase cancer risk,” American Cancer Society strategic director of pharmacoepidemiology Eric Jacobs said in WebMD Health News. In addition, height, while partially determined by genes, can be heavily influenced by childhood diet, infections and growth hormone levels. So the same factors that contribute to height might also be playing a role in increasing cancer risk.
“The importance of this research is in understanding how cancers develop,” Green told WebMD Health News. “Because height is linked to a wide range of cancers in a wide range of people, it may give us a clue to a basic common mechanism for cancer.”
Whatever the reason for the link, the vertically challenged shouldn’t feel protected against cancer, nor should the tall among us believe they are destined to develop tumors. “Of course people cannot change their height,” the authors said in a press release. They can, however, continue to follow well-established strategies for preventing cancer – not smoking, eating sensibly, and getting screened regularly. Whether you’re tall or short, these are the approaches that work best.
Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
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