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Risks and causes

Find out the risk factors for myeloma.

We don't know what causes most cases of myeloma but there are some known risk factors. A risk factor is anything that increases your risk of getting a disease. Different cancers have different risk factors. Even if you have one or more risk factor, it does not mean that you will definitely get cancer. 

How common it is

Around 5,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with myeloma each year. That is 15 people every day. The risk of myeloma increases as you get older and it is very rare in people under 40. It is almost twice as common in black populations as it is in white and asian populations. It is more common in men than women.

Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)

Many people with myeloma have a rare medical condition called monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance (MGUS) first.

MGUS means that there are too many large protein molecules known as immunoglobulins in the blood. MGUS is often found by chance because it can show up in routine blood tests. It doesn't cause any symptoms, and does not generally affect your health or need treatment.

Some people with MGUS go on to develop myeloma. If you have MGUS you will see a specialist regularly for check ups.

Family history

Those with a parent, brother, sister, or child with myeloma or monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance (MGUS) are 2 or 3 times as likely to develop myeloma or MGUS compared to people with no close family members with these illnesses.

Lowered immunity

People who take medicines to lower immunity after an organ transplant have an increased risk of myeloma compared to the general population. Less than 1 out of 100 people (1%) who have received an organ transplant develop myeloma.

People with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) have an increased risk of myeloma.

Some medical conditions

An autoimmune condition called pernicious anaemia appears to increase the risk of myeloma  and MGUS. 

Other autoimmune conditions called alkylosing spondylitis, autoimmune haemolytic anaemia and systemic lupus erythematosis might also increase the risk of myeloma.

People with a rare genetic condition called Gaucher disease have an increased risk of myeloma. Gaucher disease causes a build up of fatty substances in certain organs of the body, such as the spleen and liver. This makes the organs larger and affects how well they work.

The fatty substances can also collect in the bones causing pain, weakness and breaks (fractures).

Body weight and diet

Most evidence shows that people who are overweight or obese may have a slightly increased risk of myeloma compared to people with a healthy bodyweight. 

Diet does not appear to have any effect on myeloma risk but evidence in this area is weak. People who have a vegetarian diet may have a lower risk of myeloma.

Past exposure to radiation

People who have been exposed to high levels of radiation might have an increased risk of developing myeloma.

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes are often in the media and it isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by evidence. There might be things you have heard of that we haven’t included here. This is because either there is no evidence about them or it is less clear.

For detailed information on myeloma risks and causes

Last reviewed: 
30 May 2015
  • Malignancies and monoclonal gammopathy in Gaucher disease; a systematic review of the literature
    M Arends and others
    British Journal of Haematology, 2013, Volume 161, Issue 6

  • A meta-analysis of the incidence of non-AIDS cancers in HIV-infected individuals
    M Sheils and others
    Journal of acquired immune deficiency syndromes, 2009, Volume 52, Issue 5

  • Cancer in British vegetarians: updated analyses of 4998 incident cancers in a cohort of 32,491 meat eaters, 8612 fish eaters, 18,298 vegetarians, and 2246 vegans
    T Key and others
    American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2014, Volume 100, Supplement 1

  • Body mass index and risk of multiple myeloma: a meta-analysis
    S Larsson and others
    International Journal of Cancer, 2007, Volume 121, Issue 11

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