Today’s NYT (Friday, July 26, 2013) had a short but fascinating article entitled: “A study links cancer risk and height.” The article was written by Tara Parker-Pope and summarized a recent report in the journal, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention (a medical journal I never heard of, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one). The investigators used data from the Women’s Health Initiative, a giant long-term study of postmenopausal women (that is the study that described the now controversial link between estrogen use in postmenopausal women and breast and uterine cancer). Anyway, the investigators studied almost 21,000 women and found that the taller the woman, the greater the risk for the development of various cancers, including breast, colon, and skin. The data showed that for every 4-inch change in height, there was a 13% increase in risk for the development of any type of cancer. But, for the cancers most highly associated with height (kidney, rectum, thyroid, and blood), the risk increased between 23-29% for every 4-inch increase in height. That means a 6 foot tall woman has almost twice the risk for the development of some cancers than does a 5 foot tall woman.
We must remember that these are epidemiologic data and cannot tell us anything about the reason or reasons for the association. But it is interesting to speculate that the same growth factors (e.g., insulin-like growth factor-1) that promote growth in stature also might promote tumor growth? We already know from earlier studies that there is also a relationship between height and cancer risk in men and that men, who on average, are taller than women, have a much great risk of developing cancer in non-sex-related organs than women.
We all know the data on height bias in our society, so-called “heightism.” Now, maybe people who are on the short side, will appreciate the previously unrecognized health benefits of not being so tall. On the serious side, I think these data are quite interesting and may lead us to some important insights regarding the development of various cancers.
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