Obesity, endogenous hormones, and endometrial cancer risk: a synthetic review

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002 Dec;11(12):1531-43.


Endometrial cancer is a disease of the affluent, developed world, where epidemiological studies have shown that > or =40% of its incidence can be attributed to excess body weight. An additional proportion may be because of lack of physical activity. Alterations in endogenous hormone metabolism may provide the main links between endometrial cancer risk, and excess body weight and physical inactivity. Epidemiological studies have shown increased endometrial cancer risks among pre- and postmenopausal women who have elevated plasma androstenedione and testosterone, and among postmenopausal women who have increased levels of estrone and estradiol. Furthermore, there is evidence that chronic hyperinsulinemia is a risk factor. These relationships can all be interpreted in the light of the "unopposed estrogen" hypothesis, which proposes that endometrial cancer may develop as a result of the mitogenic effects of estrogens, when these are insufficiently counterbalanced by progesterone. In our overall synthesis, we conclude that development of ovarian hyperandrogenism may be a central mechanism relating nutritional lifestyle factors to endometrial cancer risk. In premenopausal women, ovarian hyperandrogenism likely increases risk by inducing chronic anovulation and progesterone deficiency. After the menopause, when progesterone synthesis has ceased altogether, excess weight may continue increasing risk through elevated plasma levels of androgen precursors, increasing estrogen levels through the aromatization of the androgens in adipose tissue. The ovarian androgen excess may be because of an interaction between obesity-related, chronic hyperinsulinemia with genetic factors predisposing to the development of ovarian hyperandrogenism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Distribution
  • Aged
  • Androgens / adverse effects
  • Androgens / metabolism
  • Endometrial Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Endometrial Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Estrogens / analysis
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / adverse effects*
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Insulin / analysis
  • Insulin / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Prevalence
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin / metabolism*


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Insulin
  • Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin