Exposures in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood and breast cancer risk: a systematic review of the literature

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2003 Mar;78(2):223-76. doi: 10.1023/a:1022988918755.


A growing body of work indicates that exposures over the life course have important roles to play in the aetiology of breast cancer. This review synthesises the literature that has been published in the area of early life events and female breast cancer risk. The review finds some evidence, primarily from cohort studies on the relationship between birthweight and breast cancer, to suggest that in utero events are related to breast cancer risk in adulthood. Strong evidence to support a positive association between height and breast cancer exists. Postulated mechanisms for this relationship include the role of early diet in subsequent disease risk, and the influence of endogenous growth factors mediating the relationship. There is some evidence to suggest that leg length is the component of height which is generating the observed associations between height and breast cancer. There is no consistent pattern of association between relative weight in childhood or adolescence and risk of breast cancer. The evidence to suggest an association between physical activity in early life and breast cancer risk is convincing from case-control studies, but is not fully substantiated by the results of three cohort studies. There are inconsistent results regarding the association between smoking at a young age and breast cancer risk. There is little evidence for an association between passive smoking in early life and breast cancer risk. No clear association between early drinking and breast cancer risk exists. These results are discussed in relation to possible underlying mechanisms and health promotion strategies which could reduce breast cancer risk.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Child
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Growth / physiology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Nutritional Status / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Risk
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects


  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution