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Overweight male teens cancer risk

Researchers predict huge future burden of cancer given current obesity levels

Mark Gould

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Being an overweight male teenager brings a significant risk of dying from cancer in later life. In the case of lung cancer men who are overweight or obese at age 18 had a 50% greater chance of dying from the disease than peers with a normal BMI. And a new study shows the link is still apparent even if they reduce their weight during middle age.

Maintaining a healthy weight as a teenager dramatically reduces the likelihood of men dying from cancer in later life.

But doctors say that the findings point to a greater future burden of cancers given high levels of obesity among young people across Western Europe.

Researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust and the National Institutes of Health, analysed the medical records of around 20,000 male graduates who attended Harvard between 1916 and 1950.

The researchers writing in the Annals of Oncology today found that the men in the study who had the highest body mass indexes (BMIs) at age 18 were 35% more likely to die from cancer than those with lower BMIs.

The associations between weight and cancer were particularly strong for lung, skin, oesophageal and urogenital (kidney, bladder, prostate and testicular) cancers.

They found men whose BMI had been greater than the average (21.7) at age 18 had more than a 50 % greater risk of dying from lung cancer than those with the lowest BMIs, even after accounting for whether or not they smoked. Importantly, an individual's changes in BMI between early adulthood and middle age did not influence these effects.

Dr Linsay Gray, from the Medical Research Council and chief scientist at the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Scotland, said: "This is the first time the impact of obesity in early adulthood on later risk of cancer has been so closely examined. It is very interesting that higher BMI at age 18 actually leads to a greater risk for cancer than higher BMI in middle age.

"The message here is really clear, keeping your weight healthy as a young adult can significantly reduce your chance of developing cancer. These findings point worryingly to a greater future burden of cancer."

Professor David Batty, Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow at UCL and lead scientist on the project, said: "Investigating the influence, if any, of obesity in late adolescence and early adulthood on future cancer risk requires studies that have the capacity to track individuals over many decades until they develop cancer. Because such studies are so rare, our results make an important contribution to the field."

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