Tallness and overweight during childhood have opposing effects on breast cancer risk

Br J Cancer. 2001 Nov 30;85(11):1680-4. doi: 10.1054/bjoc.2001.2109.


Using birth and school health records we studied how weight and height during childhood affect breast cancer risk among 3447 women born during 1924-33 at the University Hospital of Helsinki, Finland. Through linkages with the National Hospital Discharge Registry and the Cause of Death Registry we identified 177 women who during 1971-1995 had been admitted to hospital with breast cancer, of whom 49 had died from the disease. Of these, 135 (76%) were aged 50 years or more at the time of diagnosis, and therefore likely to have been post-menopausal. Hazard ratios for breast cancer rose with increasing weight and length at birth, though neither trend was statistically significant. At each age, from 7 to 15 years, the girls who later developed breast cancer were on average taller and had lower body mass than the other girls. Unadjusted hazard ratios rose across the range of height (P = 0.01 at age 7 years) and fell across the range of body mass index (P = 0.009 at age 7 years). In a simultaneous analysis the hazard ratio for breast cancer was 1.27 (95% CI 0.97-1.78, P = 0.08) for every kilogram increase in birth weight and 1.21 (95% CI 1.06-1.38, P = 0.004) for every kg/m(2) decrease in body mass index at 7. Our findings indicate that tallness in childhood is associated with increased risk of developing breast cancer. One possible explanation is persisting high plasma concentrations of insulin-like growth factors in tall women. In contrast, we found that being overweight in childhood reduces breast cancer risk. The increased adipose tissue-derived oestrogen levels in overweight children could induce early breast differentiation and eliminate some targets for malignant transformation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age of Onset
  • Birth Weight / physiology
  • Body Height / physiology*
  • Body Weight / physiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Pregnancy
  • Risk Factors
  • Survival Rate