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Height Affects More Than Cancer Risk in Women and Men

Height and cancer risk

If you are a tall postmenopausal woman, a new study indicates you have a greater risk for several different types of cancer. This study joins previous research which has suggested height affects more than cancer risk in women and men. Here’s what researchers have found thus far.

What’s new about height and cancer in women?

First of all, tall women should not be alarmed by the new study. According to Geoffrey C. Kabat, one of the study’s authors and senior epidemiologist in the department of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York, “Height itself is not a risk factor, but it really appears to be a marker for one or more exposures that influence cancer risk.”

That said, here’s a brief breakdown of the study. Researchers analyzed data (height, weight, age, hormone use, alcohol use, smoking habits, education) from 20,928 postmenopausal women who had participated in the Women’s Health Initiative. All of the women had been diagnosed with cancer during the 12 years of the study.

Their analysis showed that the taller a woman is, the greater her risk for developing various cancers, including breast, colon, colorectal, endometrial, kidney, multiple myeloma, ovarian, rectal, skin cancer (melanoma), and thyroid. Overall, the risk for developing any type of cancer increased by 13 percent for every 4-inch increase in height, with cancers of the blood, kidney, rectum, and thyroid having the strongest association with height, with an increased risk of 23 to 29 percent for each 4-inch increase in height.

More on height and health risks
When it comes to cancer risk, it’s generally accepted that most types of cancer occur more frequently in men than in women. However, the influence of height on that risk, as well as on other medical conditions, is still being explored.

This latest study is not the first time scientists have looked at an association between height and the risk of cancer and other health issues. For example:

Example 1: In the June 2013 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers reported on an analysis of 65,308 volunteers aged 50 to 76 years who had participated in the Vitamins and Lifestyle (VITAL) study. An evaluation of cancers that developed in that group showed that men had a 55 percent increased risk of getting cancer at shared sites; that is, organs and other body sites men and women both have.

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When the reviewers examined the role of height, they determined that nearly 34 percent of the excess cancer risk for men was because of height differences between the sexes. Height seemed to play the biggest role in cancer of the kidney, skin (melanoma), and blood, with little influence for cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, bladder, or lungs.

Example 2: The findings of both a case-control study and meta-analysis of 58 studies that looked at height and prostate cancer risk were reported in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. The reviewers found evidence that “height is positively associated with prostate cancer...with a stronger effect for prospective studies of more advanced/aggressive cancers.”

Example 3: Aside from cancer risk, height can also impact other health conditions. A large study published in Economics and Human Biology reported on the impact of height and wealth on health. An evaluation of data from three cohorts results in the following:

  • Shorter men and women seem to have an increased risk of coronary heart disease
  • A greater risk of stroke may also exist for shorter men and women, but the association is less clear
  • “Height may be negative related to the risk of completed suicide,” but since little research is available on this topic, no conclusions can yet be made
  • Cancers of the colon and rectum, breast (in women), prostate, central nervous system, skin, endometrium, blood, and thyroid are more common in taller people

Example 4: A 2009 study reported that testicular cancer is more likely to occur among taller men. Although testicular cancer is not common, the risk increases about 13 percent for every additional inch in height after 5 feet 10 inches.

The bottom line
For now, experts cannot explain why taller women and men have a greater risk of cancer. Height is controlled by several factors, including genetics, childhood nutrition, hormone levels, and exercise.

Hormones and growth factors (e.g., insulin-like growth factor) may have a role in cancer risk, because they can stimulate growth as well as the spread of cancer cells. Another reason may be purely about numbers: taller people have more cells and more surface area, which means more opportunities for cancer to start and grow.

This latest study and others provide researchers with important information that may help explain why some people develop certain cancers and other medical conditions while others do not.

Batty GD et al. Height, wealth, and health: an overview with new data from three longitudinal studies. Economics and Human Biology 2009 Jul; 7(2): 137-52
Kabat GC et al. Adult stature and risk of cancer at different anatomic sites in a cohort of postmenopausal women. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2013 Jul 25. DOI:10.1158/1055-9965
Walter RB et al. Height as an explanatory factor for sex differences in human cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2013 Jun 19; 105(12): 860-68
Zuccolo L et al. Height and prostate cancer risk: a large nested case-control study (ProtecT) and meta-analysis. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2008 Sep; 17(9): 2325-36

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