Iron and cancer risk--a systematic review and meta-analysis of the epidemiological evidence

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2014 Jan;23(1):12-31. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-13-0733. Epub 2013 Nov 15.


Iron has been suggested as a risk factor for different types of cancers mainly due to its prooxidant activity, which can lead to oxidative DNA damage. Furthermore, subjects with hemochromatosis or iron overload have been shown to have a higher risk of developing liver cancer. We have systematically reviewed 59 epidemiologic studies, published between 1995 and 2012, reporting information on total iron, dietary iron, heme iron, and biomarkers of iron status and cancer risk. Furthermore we conducted meta-analysis for colorectal [relative risk (RR), 1.08; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.00-1.17], colon (RR = 1.12; 95% CI, 1.03-1.22), breast (RR = 1.03; 95% CI, 0.97-1.09), and lung cancer (RR = 1.12; 95% CI, 0.98-1.29), for an increase of 1 mg/day of heme iron intake. Globally, on the basis of the systematic review and the meta-analysis results, a higher intake of heme iron has shown a tendency toward a positive association with cancer risk. Evidence regarding high levels of biomarkers of iron stores (mostly with serum ferritin) suggests a negative effect toward cancer risk. More prospective studies combining research on dietary iron intake, iron biomarkers, genetic susceptibility, and other relevant factors need to be conducted to clarify these findings and better understand the role of iron in cancer development.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Humans
  • Iron, Dietary / administration & dosage*
  • Iron, Dietary / adverse effects
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Risk Factors


  • Iron, Dietary