Adiposity, breast density, and breast cancer risk: epidemiological and biological considerations

Eur J Cancer Prev. 2017 Nov;26(6):511-520. doi: 10.1097/CEJ.0000000000000310.


Excess total body fat and abdominal adipose tissue are recognized risk factors for metabolic diseases but also for some types of cancers, including breast cancer. Several biological mechanisms in connection with local and systemic effects of adiposity are believed to be implicated in breast cancer development, and may involve breast fat. Breast adipose tissue can be studied through mammography by looking at breast density features such as the nondense area mainly composed of fat, or the percent breast density, which is the proportion of fibroglandular tissue in relation to fat. The relation between adiposity, breast density features, and breast cancer is complex. Studies suggest a paradoxical association as adiposity and absolute nondense area correlate positively with each other, but in contrast to adiposity, absolute nondense area seems to be associated negatively with breast cancer risk. As breast density is one of the strongest risk factors for breast cancer, it is therefore critical to understand how these factors interrelate. In this review, we discuss these relations by first presenting how adiposity measurements and breast density features are linked to breast cancer risk. Then, we used a systematic approach to capture the literature to review the relation between adiposity and breast density features. Finally, the role of adipose tissue in carcinogenesis is discussed briefly from a biological perspective.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity / physiology*
  • Body Mass Index*
  • Breast Density / physiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors