Insulin resistance, obesity and breast cancer risk

Maturitas. 2008 May 20;60(1):19-30. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2008.03.002. Epub 2008 May 16.


Breast cancer (BC) is one of the most important problems of public health. Among the avoidable risk factors during a woman's life, overweight and obesity are very important ones. Furthermore they are increasing worldwide. The risk of breast cancer is traditionally linked to obesity in postmenopausal women; conversely, it is neutral or even protective in premenopausal women. Since the initiator and promoter factors for BC act over a long time, it seems unlikely that the menopausal transition may have too big an impact on the role of obesity in the magnitude of the risk. We reviewed the literature in an attempt to understand this paradox, with particular attention to the body fat distribution and its impact on insulin resistance. The association of insulin resistance and obesity with BC risk are biologically plausible and consistent. Estradiol (E2) and IGFs act as mitogens in breast cancer cells. They act together and reciprocally. However the clinical and biological methods to assess the impact of insulin resistance are not always accurate. Furthermore insulin resistance is far from being a constant feature in obesity, particularly in premenopausal women; this complicates the analysis and explains the discrepancies in large prospective trials. The most consistent clinical feature to assess risk across epidemiological studies seems to be weight gain during lifetime. Loss of weight is associated with a lower risk for postmenopausal BC compared with weight maintenance. This observation should be an encouragement for women since loss of weight may be an effective strategy for breast cancer risk reduction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipokines / blood
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Risk Factors


  • Adipokines
  • Biomarkers