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Metabolic illness increases the risk of obesity-related cancer

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Researchers have used data from 800,000 people to examine how BMI and metabolic health affect the risk of obesity-related cancers. Image: Marjan Blan/unsplash
  • Article from Lund University
  • Subject: Health & medicine

Metabolic illness is often linked to obesity, but you don’t have to be overweight to suffer from metabolic illness. Now research shows that metabolic syndrome increases the risk of cancers linked to obesity even at normal weight.

It is already known that obesity can be linked to more than ten different cancers, see fact box. Now researchers in a European collaboration run from Lund University have included metabolic health in epidemiological studies* on obesity-related cancer. The aim is to map how metabolic health interacts with body weight regarding the risk of obesity-related cancer.

*Epidemiological research investigates the prevalence of various diseases in a population.

In a study now published in Journal of the National Cancer Institute the researchers have included data from health surveys and national registers from nearly 800,000 individuals through the years 1972-2014.

By weighing together data on blood pressure, blood glucose and blood fats in the form of triglycerides, they produced a metabolic score that determined whether the people were considered metabolically healthy or unhealthy. Based on BMI (Body Mass Index), the people were also divided into the categories of normal weight, overweight or obese.

– Metabolic illness is often linked with obesity, but you don’t have to be overweight to suffer from metabolic illness. Therefore, it is relevant to study how metabolic disease plays a role in the relationship between BMI and obesity-related cancer, says Tanja Stocks, researcher and dcoent in epidemiology, who has led the study.

Metabolic illness risk for certain cancers – intended for BMI

For up to 40 years, nearly 800,000 people from Sweden, Norway and Austria have been followed based on how their BMI and metabolic health affect the risk of suffering from obesity-related cancers. During the follow-up period, 23,630 individuals were diagnosed with an obesity-related cancer. It was no surprise to the researchers that a higher BMI increased the risk of cancer, but metabolic disease itself was also associated with an increased risk.

The highest risk was found among individuals with metabolically unhealthy obesity, which was associated with the highest risk for cancer of the liver, kidney, and among women also for endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine body). An important finding was also that metabolic illness alone constituted an increased risk of obesity-related cancer regardless of whether one was of normal weight, overweight or obese.

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More metabolic risk profiles besides obesity

The study cannot prove causation, but the researchers did see that obesity and metabolic disease interacted in a way that increased the risk of certain cancers more than expected when the two factors were combined.

– The study shows the importance of assessing different metabolic risk profiles in addition to obesity, in order to be able to identify the groups that can benefit most from interventions to reduce their risk of suffering from obesity-related cancers, says Ming Sun, PhD student and first author of the study.

Metabolic score

Blood pressure, blood glucose and triglycerides were measured in the study. Individuals whose total metabolic score ended up in the highest third were defined as metabolically unhealthy and the rest as metabolically healthy. BMI was divided into normal weight (

Cancers related to obesity

The cancers studied are known to be obesity-related: oesophagus, upper part of the stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, kidney, liver, gallbladder, breast (postmenopausal), endometrium, ovary and multiple myeloma.

Scientific article:

Metabolically (un)healthy obesity and risk of obesity-related cancers: a pooled study Journal of the National Cancer Institute

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