New study links overweight and obesity to more cancers than previously shown

6 July 2023

Longitudinal body mass index and cancer risk: a cohort study of 2.6 million adults, published in Nature Communications, has found that overweight and obesity during early adulthood (between ages 18–40 years) could be linked with up to 18 cancers, with some of these cancers not previously associated to weight as a risk factor.

The results of the study found the longer the length of time, greater the degree, and younger the age of overweight and obesity, the higher the associated risk of developing 18 different cancers.

The large study of 2,645,885 individuals, looked at people’s body mass index (BMI) status across their lifetime instead of focusing on one BMI measurement. It was led by researchers from the Institut d’investigació en Atenció Primària de Salut Jordi Gol (IDIAPJGol) in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and funded by the Wereld Kanker Onderzoek Fonds (WKOF).

Previous evidence linked at least 13 cancers

Previous evidence from the World Cancer Research Fund and others have linked overweight and obesity to at least 13 different cancers. Some of the new cancers that the study has found could be linked to weight include leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and, among people who have never smoked, bladder cancers.

Andrea Pistillo, one of the study’s lead authors, said:

In this study we used advanced methodologies to retrieve missing information on BMI from participants. After nine years of follow-up, 225,396 participants were diagnosed with cancer.

We found that apart from BMI at baseline, other BMI-derived indicators such as duration, degree and age of onset of overweight and obesity were associated with the risk of up to 18 types of cancers. So far indeed, only 13 types of cancers were associated with high BMI. In fact, one of the objectives of the study was to assess whether life course adiposity-related exposures are more relevant cancer risk factors than only one BMI measurement.

Dr Heinz Freisling, based at IARC and one of the lead investigators of the study, said:

The results of our study support a re-evaluation of the cancer burden associated with overweight and obesity, which currently is likely underestimated.

Dr Talita Duarte-Sallés, the principal investigator of the project at IDIAPJGol, further emphasised the public health implications of the study findings:

These compelling results support the implementation of primary care-based strategies for cancer prevention, with a strong focus on preventing and reducing early overweight and obesity.

This pioneering research marks a significant milestone in understanding the intricate relationship between overweight/obesity and cancer risk. With these findings, the global community has a powerful new tool to shape targeted interventions, develop effective prevention strategies, and ultimately make a significant impact on cancer outcomes worldwide.

Dr Panagiota Mitrou, Director of Research, Policy and Innovation at World Cancer Research Fund, said:

This large study has future public health implications since additional cancers, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, have been shown to be linked with overweight and obesity.

“Our own evidence shows that maintaining a healthy weight throughout life is one of the most important things people can do to reduce their cancer risk, and early prevention in adulthood is key.



The Institut d’investigació en Atenció Primària de Salut Jordi Gol (IDIAPJGol) is a leading research institute specializing in primary care research. Committed to advancing healthcare through rigorous scientific investigations, IDIAPJGol collaborates with various national and international partners to make substantial contributions to medical knowledge.

About World Cancer Research Fund

World Cancer Research Fund examines how diet, nutrition, body weight and physical activity affect your risk of developing and surviving cancer. As part of an international network of charities, it has been funding life-saving research, influencing global public health policy, and educating the public since 1982. While society continues searching for a cure, World Cancer Research Fund’s prevention and survival work is helping people live longer, happier, healthier lives – free from the devastating effects of cancer. and Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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