Epidemiology of susceptibility to breast cancer

Prog Clin Biol Res. 1996;395:159-74.


Numerous factors have been noted to be associated with risk of breast cancer. Indicators of endogenous hormonal alterations are among them: early age at menarche and late age at menopause, nulliparity, late age at first full term pregnancy and obesity in postmenopausal women. Other established risk factors are family history of breast cancer, histologic characteristics of benign tissue, mammographic patterns, exogenous hormones and alcohol consumption. Endogenous indicators may be a reflection of enhanced susceptibility, whereas exogenous exposures can have both independent effects on risk and the ability to interact with markers of inherited susceptibility. In case control studies of breast cancer, family history confers a risk elevation of two to three fold. The higher risk estimate occurs when first degree rather than second degree relatives are affected, or if more than one relative is affected. A relative diagnosed before age 45 increases risk for early-onset breast cancer. These findings have been obtained using either traditional analytic methods for case control data or an alternative strategy, which uses case control status as the predictor variable and models the risk to relatives in a time-dependent fashion. Risk of breast cancer is greater for the mother and sisters of cases than controls. The magnitude of risk increases with 1) decreasing age of diagnosis of the index case 2) additional family members with diagnosed breast cancer and 3) bilateral breast cancer in the index case. Although these two analytic approaches have somewhat different data requirements and may be subject to different biases, the results produced are quite consistent. Mutated p53 in female family members of patients with Li-Fraumeni syndrome was one of the first identified genetic susceptibility markers for breast cancer. Application of segregation and linkage analyses to pedigrees with multiple affected family members successfully focused the search for BRCA1. Recent cloning and sequencing of BRCA1 will allow for its use in risk assessment, diagnostic evaluation and screening of high risk women. BRCA1 appears to be primarily responsible for early-onset breast cancer in high risk families. Rare alleles of H-ras could account for some of the late-onset cases in unselected populations since at least 85% of breast cancer appears to be sporadic, other genetic markers yet to be identified undoubtedly exist.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Biomarkers
  • Breast / pathology
  • Breast Diseases / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Ethnicity / genetics
  • Female
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Humans
  • Hyperplasia
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity
  • Oncogenes
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproductive History
  • Risk
  • Risk Factors


  • Biomarkers