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Colorectal cancer risk increases with every year of overweight

No. 17 | 18/03/2022 | by Koh

The number of years of life in which a person is overweight is more significant for the risk of colorectal cancer than a single measurement of body weight. This has now been published by scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). Compared to people who have maintained a normal weight throughout their lives, those who are permanently overweight are up to two and a half times more likely to develop colorectal cancer. This means that avoiding obesity plays an even more important role in cancer prevention than previously assumed.

© Wikimedia Commons

Numerous types of cancer occur more frequently in overweight people than in people of normal weight. These include breast cancer, cancer of the uterus, kidney or esophagus - and also colorectal cancer. This has now been confirmed by numerous studies.

But in most of these studies, the body weight of the participants was only determined once. "Our consideration, however, was that it should play an even greater role in the risk of colorectal cancer how long a person carries around the excess kilos," explains Hermann Brenner, an epidemiologist at the German Cancer Research Center. Scientists assume that obesity is a driver of colorectal cancer because fatty tissue constantly releases growth factors, hormones or pro-inflammatory substances. So it must make a difference whether the body is exposed to this influence only over a comparatively short period of time or whether the obesity persists for decades, possibly even since adolescence.

To test this hypothesis, Brenner and colleagues used data from the DACHS study*. Since 2003, DKFZ researchers have followed and interviewed colorectal cancer patients and randomly selected control participants without a colorectal cancer diagnosis for this case-control study in the Rhine-Neckar region.

The DACHS participants were asked about their weight at different ages since the age of 20. Using this information, DKFZ epidemiologists calculated the number of years of life with obesity** for each of the 5635 patients and 4515 control participants recruited into the study between 2003 and 2017. In addition, the researchers also considered the extent of excess pounds.

The result: compared with permanently normal-weight participants, overweight people have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. And this risk increases with the number of overweight years of life and the extent of the excess weight: those participants who had been carrying around many pounds over the long term were two and a half times more likely to develop colorectal cancer than those with a permanently normal weight. Thus, this value has a higher predictive power and correlates much better with the actual risk of colorectal cancer than a one-time determination of overweight.

"It is clear from our study that obesity has an even greater impact on colorectal cancer risk than previously thought. It can be assumed that this is also true for many other diseases for which obesity is a known risk factor. This underlines once again how important it is to prevent obesity from occurring in childhood and adolescence," Brenner emphasizes.

Scientists also apply the concept of "cumulative lifetime exposure" when assessing other primary cancer risk factors. For example, to determine the harmful influence of tobacco, they determine the lifetime "package-years" of smoking as a metric.

Xiangwei Li, Lisa Jansen, Jenny Chang-Claude, Michael Hoffmeister, Hermann Brenner: Risk of Colorectal Cancer According to Lifetime Excess Weight. Jama Oncology 2022, DOI: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2022.0064

* DACHS study: colorectal cancer: chances of prevention through screening. More on this at:
DACHS .::. Homepage (

** In adults, scientists speak of overweight from a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25, and of obesity from a BMI of 30. BMI is a person's weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters.

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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