Context: Endogenous hormones are a primary cause of breast cancer. Adiposity affects circulating hormones, particularly in postmenopausal women, and may be a modifiable risk factor for breast cancer.
Objective: To assess the associations of adult weight change since age 18 years and since menopause with the risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women.
Design, setting, and participants: Prospective cohort study within the Nurses' Health Study. A total of 87,143 postmenopausal women, aged 30 to 55 years and free of cancer, were followed up for up to 26 years (1976-2002) to assess weight change since age 18 years. Weight change since menopause was assessed among 49,514 women who were followed up for up to 24 years.
Main outcome measure: Incidence of invasive breast cancer.
Results: Overall, 4393 cases of invasive breast cancer were documented. Compared with those who maintained weight, women who gained 25.0 kg or more since age 18 years were at an increased risk of breast cancer (relative risk [RR], 1.45; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.27-1.66; P<.001 for trend), with a stronger association among women who have never taken postmenopausal hormones (RR,1.98; 95% CI, 1.55-2.53). Compared with weight maintenance, women who gained 10.0 kg or more since menopause were at an increased risk of breast cancer (RR, 1.18; 95% CI, 1.03-1.35; P = .002 for trend). Women who had never used postmenopausal hormones, lost 10.0 kg or more since menopause, and kept the weight off were at a lower risk than those who maintained weight (RR, 0.43; 95% CI, 0.21-0.86; P = .01 for weight loss trend). Overall, 15.0% (95% CI, 12.8%-17.4%) of breast cancer cases in this population may be attributable to weight gain of 2.0 kg or more since age 18 years and 4.4% (95% CI, 3.6%-5.5%) attributable to weight gain of 2.0 kg or more since menopause. Among those who did not use postmenopausal hormones, the population attributable risks are 24.2% (95% CI, 19.8%-29.1%) for a weight gain since age 18 years and 7.6% (95% CI, 5.9%-9.7%) for weight gain since menopause.
Conclusions: These data suggest that weight gain during adult life, specifically since menopause, increases the risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women, whereas weight loss after menopause is associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer. Thus, in addition to other known benefits of healthy weight, our results provide another reason for women approaching menopause to maintain or lose weight, as appropriate.