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Rising obesity levels in UK could result in 4,000 extra cancer cases each year

A large body mass index is associated with the risk of developing ten common cancers, including uterine, kidney and liver cancers.

Obese people walking on street

Source: Jakub Cejpek /

Being overweight or obese is associated with a higher risk of developing ten common cancers

A large body mass index (BMI) is associated with a higher risk of developing ten common cancers, UK researchers report in The Lancet (online, 14 August 2014). The public health implications are substantial, with 41% of uterine cancers and at least 10% of gallbladder, kidney, liver and colon cancers in the UK being attributable to excess weight.

The researchers estimate that a 1kg/m2 increase in population-wide average BMI – which would occur every 12 or so years based on recent trends – would result in nearly 4,000 extra cases of these cancers in the UK each year.

In the study[1], led by Krishnan Bhaskaran, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, researchers analysed primary care data for 5.24 million UK adults in the Clinical Practice Research Datalink. The team looked for associations between BMI and 22 of the most common cancers, adjusting for potential confounders.

BMI was linearly associated with cancers of the uterus, gallbladder, kidney, cervix, thyroid and leukaemia, with hazard ratios ranging from 1.09 to 1.62 for each 5kg/m2 increase.

Higher BMI was also associated with increased risks of liver, colon, ovarian and breast cancer, but the effects varied by underlying BMI or individual-level factors such as sex and menopausal status. Meanwhile, higher BMI was associated with a slightly reduced risk of prostate and premenopausal breast cancer.

Bhaskaran and team say that the observed heterogeneity “suggests that different mechanisms are associated with different cancer sites and different patient subgroups”.

“Even within normal BMI ranges, higher BMI was associated with increased risk of some cancers, accentuating the public health implications in view of the overall increase in population BMI distributions in several countries,” they write.

In an accompanying editorial entitled “Obesity: a certain and avoidable cause of cancer”[2], US epidemiologist Peter Campbell from the American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Georgia, writes: “Research strategies that identify population-wide or community-based interventions and policies that effectively reduce obesity should be particularly encouraged and supported. Moreover, we need a political environment, and politicians with sufficient courage, to implement such policies effectively.”

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.20066178

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