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Taller women have higher cancer risk

By Philip Wilson

Taller people may have a higher risk of developing cancer. That’s the conclusion of a new study that looked at more than a million women.

What do we know already?

Several studies have suggested that taller people might have a higher risk of developing cancer. There seems to be a link between height and cancer of the prostate, ovary, or bowel. We don’t have much information about how height affects some of the less common cancers.

A new study has looked at more than a million middle-aged women in the UK, and followed them for nearly 10 years to see if their height was linked to their risk of developing cancer.

What does the new study say?

Taller women were slightly more likely to develop cancer. Every extra 10 centimetres (4 inches) of height over a baseline of 154 centimetres (5 feet) was linked to a 16 percent higher risk of cancer.

The extra risk works out at about one extra woman developing cancer in a group of 100 taller women, compared with another 100 women who are 10 centimetres shorter.

Taller women had a higher risk of several kinds of cancer, including bowel cancer, skin cancer, breast cancer, cancer of the ovaries, cancer of the womb lining, cancer of the kidneys, leukaemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a type of blood cancer), and cancers affecting the nervous system.

The researchers looked at previous studies and found that the link between height and cancer exists in most parts of the world. The new study only looked at women, but previous studies looking at men have had similar findings.

How reliable are the findings?

Although the researchers found a link between height and cancer, it’s hard to say what the cause might be. There are several theories.

Your height is determined partly by your genes, and some cancers have a genetic cause. So, it might be that some people have a genetic type that makes them taller, and more likely to develop cancer.

Aspects of someone’s life – such as the food they eat, how well-nourished they were as a child, and their social group – may affect both height and cancer risk.

It’s also possible that hormones play a part. A hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) affects how quickly children grow, and has already been linked to prostate, bowel, and breast cancer.

Finally, it could be as simple as taller people having more cells in their bodies, so there are more opportunities for a cell to turn cancerous.

What does this mean for me?

You can’t change your height, but we know that there are things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer.

Smoking causes 9 in 10 cases of lung cancer, and also increases the risk of more than a dozen other cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bladder, and bowel cancer. The risk of cancer from smoking is much greater than the risk from being tall.

Experts think that around a quarter of all cancer deaths are caused by people being overweight or eating a poor diet. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, not too much red or processed meat, and only a little alcohol helps to cut the risk of cancer.


Green J, Cairns BJ, Casabonne D, et al. Height and cancer incidence in the Million Women Study: prospective cohort, and meta-analysis of prospective studies of height and total cancer risk. Published online 21 July, 2011.

Jul 21, 2011