OCT 17, 2016 02:05 PM PDT

Study Connects Cancer Risks with Socioeconomic Status from Birth

A person’s risks for cancer and other diseases aren’t just sealed in their genetic code – environment and lifestyle influences play a big role in cancer development too. And while many scientists are looking at the near present to determine what lifestyle factors contributed to cancer diagnoses, researchers at the University of Utah are going much further back – to when people were born.
In surveying census and demographics data for a baby-boomer group in two Utah counties, the team found interesting correlations between family status and individual cancer risks.

"When individuals file a birth certificate, they put the parent's occupation industry on that. So it combines the average income for that occupation and the education level for that occupation," said Heidi Hanson, co-author of the study.
Then, using Census information, "we're able to take a Census tract and we're able to geolocate individuals."
What the team found was intriguing. In families where parents have high occupational standing, children tended to have higher risks for melanoma and prostate cancer. Women in these beginnings also seemed to have higher risks for breast cancer.
At the other end of the socioeconomic status, girls born in poor to low-income neighborhoods had a higher risk of invasive cervical cancer. By contrast, melanoma risks for this group tended to be lower in comparison to those in high status neighborhoods.

"This study shows that early-life socioeconomic status, based on factors such as parental occupation at birth, may be associated with cancer risk in adulthood,” said Ken Smith, senior author of the study. “Using this information, we may be able to identify individuals who are at higher risk for cancer due to socioeconomic status at birth, and ideally, work to find strategies to help them manage their cancer risk in adulthood.”
How the cancer correlations fall as they did in this group is still under investigation. However, it’s worth noting that the cancer risks may be affected by people’s ability and willingness to get screened – a factor that’s directly tied to socioeconomic status.
Nevertheless, the ability to look at cancer risks in depth, over a lifetime, is exceedingly powerful. It could allow researchers to fill in the gaps and complete a whole story for cancer risks. "To understand cancer, we need to not only look at disease risk at the time an individual is diagnosed with cancer, we really need to backdate that to look at their entire life history," Hanson said.

Additional sources: MNT, KUER1 NPR News
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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