New research shows that taller men have an increased risk of dying from prostate cancer, but how worried should men really be? We take a closer look at the findings...

13 Jul 2017
In - Research

New research released today by scientists at Oxford University shows that taller men have an increased risk of dying from prostate cancer. This has been picked up in several news outlets, including The Guardian, The Sun, The Telegraph and The Mail Online.

But after a closer look at the statistics behind the story, we get to grips with what’s really interesting about this research.

Taller men are at increased risk of dying from prostate cancer

The research reported that the risk of death from prostate cancer increased by 17 per cent for every additional 10cm in height. This sounds like a big increase, but what does it mean in reality?

If we look at the actual numbers involved in this study, the analysis drew from data on 141,896 men and found 932 men died from prostate cancer overall. This included 159 of the shortest men, who were under 5 feet 6 inches tall, and 227 of the tallest men, who were over 5 feet 11 inches.

Statistically, this means the increased absolute risk of dying from prostate cancer for the tallest men in the study was approximately 0.28 per cent. Put another way, for every 10,000 men, an extra 28 would die if they were all over 5 feet 11 inches compared to if they were all under 5 feet 6 inches.

Another potential clue to the causes of prostate cancer

The connection between height and risk of death from prostate cancer death is an important finding, but it doesn’t mean that tall men should be unduly worried since the increase in absolute risk is very small.

What is really interesting about this research, though, is that it gives us another interesting clue as to what might cause prostate cancer in the first place. We know that certain factors affect how tall a man ends up being, including genetics, levels of exposure to hormones like testosterone in the womb, and childhood nutrition. The interesting question for researchers now is whether any of these things might also be involved in whatever triggers prostate cells to become cancerous and whether there’s anything we can do to prevent it. You can read more about the better prevention arm of our ambitious research strategy on our website.

Obese men are also at increased risk of dying from prostate cancer

This study – like many others before it – also showed a link between obesity and prostate cancer, and it’s now well established that the best way to reduce your risk of prostate cancer and many other health conditions is to eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight.

A higher Body Mass Index (BMI) was associated with increased risk of death from prostate cancer. And an increase of 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) around the waist, which is seen as a more accurate measure of obesity than BMI in older adults, was associated with an 18 per cent greater risk of death from prostate cancer.

Again, working out the increased absolute risk can help us understand what this means in real terms. For BMI, the increase in absolute risk of death from prostate cancer between the group with the lowest BMI (12.7–23.5) and those with the highest BMI (29.2–68.4) was approximately 0.2 per cent – or 20 men in every 10,000.

For waist size, the increase in absolute risk of death from prostate cancer between the group with the smallest waist circumference (51–86cm or 20–34 inches) and those with the largest waist circumference (103–180cm or 41–71 inches) was around 0.28 per cent – or 28 men in every 10,000.

The absolute additional risk is, again, quite small. But the key difference here is that, unlike height, BMI and waist circumference can be affected by lifestyle, which is something that can be changed to reduce this additional risk.

Our verdict on this research...

Here’s what our Deputy Director of Research, Dr Matt Hobbs, has to say about this research:

Overall, prostate cancer can affect men of all shapes and sizes so it is important that all men, and especially those over 50, Black or with a family history of the disease, continue to be aware of their prostate health and speak to their doctor if they have concerns.

“However, we know very little about what happens in cells to actually trigger prostate cancer, which is why this is a priority research area for us. Understanding this is crucial if we are to find ways to predict and prevent the disease in the future.

“It is certainly interesting that, according to this research, certain physical characteristics appear to increase a man’s likelihood of developing aggressive prostate cancer, as it might provide pointers to help uncover certain genetic markers and early developmental processes which hold significance in terms of causing the disease to develop.  It also underlines once again the importance of living a healthy lifestyle to help defend against a host of diseases, including prostate cancer.” 

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