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Prostate cancer risks and causes

Men and women discussing prostate cancer

This page tells you about the risks and causes of prostate cancer and factors that can affect the risk of developing prostate cancer. There is information below about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Risks and causes of prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is now the most common cancer in men in the UK (not counting non melanoma skin cancer).  There are some risk factors that we know about.

Age is the most significant risk factor. More than half of all cases are diagnosed in men over 70. It is quite rare in men under 50.

You may also be more at risk if you

  • Have a family history of prostate or breast cancer
  • Are black (of African or Caribbean ancestry) – prostate cancer is more common in black men than white or Asian men
  • Asian men have a lower risk than white men

Your diet may affect your risk. There is a lot of research going on and the evidence is not strong but you may increase your prostate cancer risk if you eat a diet high in dairy products. There is some evidence that lycopene from tomatoes (especially cooked or processed tomatoes) may lower the risk.

Some studies have shown that having diabetes may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. There is also some evidence that regularly taking aspirin or other non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) could reduce the risk.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About prostate cancer section.

 

 

How common prostate cancer is

Prostate cancer is now the most common cancer in men in the UK (not counting non melanoma skin cancer). More than 41,700 men are diagnosed each year. That is almost a quarter of all cancers diagnosed in men.

 

Age

Prostate cancer is quite rare in men under 50. More than half of all cases are diagnosed in men over 70. Age is the most significant risk factor of all for prostate cancer. The older you are, the greater the risk. In old age, up to 8 out of 10 men have prostate cancer cells in the prostate.

No one can give you an exact figure of risk. In the UK, about 1 in 9 men will get prostate cancer at some point in their lives. Remember, this is lifetime risk and involves men who get prostate cancer at any age, up to 85 or more. Your risk when you are younger is much lower than 1 in 9.

 

A family history of cancer

A family history means that you have someone in your family who has cancer. Generally speaking, if you have a father or brother diagnosed with prostate cancer you are 2 to 3 times more likely to get prostate cancer yourself, compared to the average man. The age that your relative is diagnosed with prostate cancer may also be a factor. If they were diagnosed before the age of 60, this increases your risk by slightly more than if they were diagnosed after the age of 60. If you have more than one first degree relative diagnosed with prostate cancer (at any age) your risk is about 4 times that of the general population. 

If your relative was young when they were diagnosed, or if you have several relatives with prostate cancer, these could be signs that there is a faulty gene running in the family. The younger the age at diagnosis, the more likely it is that an inherited faulty gene is the cause. Remember that for there to be a faulty gene at work, the affected relatives have to come from the same side of your family (your mother's side or your father's side). 

Men who have relatives with breast cancer may also have a higher risk of prostate cancer, particularly if the family members were diagnosed under the age of 60. This increased risk is mainly caused by an inherited faulty gene called BRCA2. Men who have a fault (mutation) in the BRCA2 gene can have a risk of prostate cancer that is 5 times higher than men in the general population. The risk can be 7 times higher in men under the age of 65.

Faults in a gene called BRCA1 may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer in men under the age of 65 by a small amount. But in men older than 65 who have a faulty BRCA1 gene there doesn’t appear to be an increased risk.

It is important to remember that statistics are always a generalisation. There are likely to be specific factors at work for some men, which increase their risk.

 

Genes and prostate cancer

Scientists are working on identifying other genes that may increase the risk of prostate cancer. In 2008, Cancer Research UK scientists identified 7 gene changes that increase the risk of prostate cancer. In the future, they may develop a test, to see if men are carrying any of these genes.

 

Bowel cancer

Some studies have found an increased risk of prostate cancer in men who have had colon cancer. So there may be a common faulty gene for both these types of cancer.

 

Ethnicity

Prostate cancer is more common in black Caribbean and black African men than in white or Asian men. In the UK, black African and black Caribbean men are 2 or 3 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men. Asian men have a lower risk than white men. 

This difference seems to be due to a mixture of inherited genes and environmental factors. When men move from a country where the prostate cancer risk is low to one where it is higher their risk increases. For example, South Asian men living in the UK have a higher risk of prostate cancer than men living in South Asia.

 

Diabetes

Men with diabetes mellitus may have a lower risk of prostate cancer than the average man. We don't know why this is. Research into this issue is coming up with contradictory results at the moment. But it may be something to do with a change in normal insulin production in diabetes affecting the level of a growth factor called IGF-1 in the blood.

 

Diet and prostate cancer

Eating a healthy diet can lower your risk of many cancers. Many studies have looked at dietary factors and prostate cancer risk. This type of research is difficult. We all eat such a variety of different things that any link between diet and illness is very difficult to prove. Much of the research has not found any definite links between particular foods and the risk of prostate cancer. Foods that have been studied include

  • Fat and meat
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Vitamin E
  • Green tea
  • Soy

Recently, though, reviews of the evidence have found that foods containing lycopene and selenium probably reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

  • Lycopene is found mainly in tomatoes and tomato based foods, with especially high levels in cooked and processed tomato products
  • Selenium is a naturally occurring chemical found in plant foods (such as vegetables) fish, shellfish, some meats, grains, eggs, Brewer's yeast, and wheat germ

Diets high in calcium and dairy protein may increase the risk of prostate cancer.

 

IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor)

Insulin like growth factor is a normal chemical that our body makes. It is involved in the regulation of normal cell growth and death. Some studies have shown that men with a higher level of IGF-1 in the blood have a higher risk of prostate cancer. But other studies have not found this. So we need more research in order to find out whether IGF-1 influences the risk of prostate cancer.

 

Hormones and prostate cancer

Hormone levels may or may not play a part in the risk of developing prostate cancer. The prostate gland is a sex organ. It produces a liquid which is mixed with sperm to make semen. Testosterone is a sex hormone produced by the testicle and the prostate gland needs testosterone to work. It was thought in the past that having higher levels of testosterone in the blood may increase the risk of prostate cancer. But, in 2008 an analysis of 18 separate studies found no link between levels of sex hormones and prostate cancer risk.

CancerHelp UK has information about hormone therapies for prostate cancer.

 

Vasectomy

Men who have had a vasectomy may have a slightly increased risk of prostate cancer although some studies have not shown an increase. Vasectomy is a procedure for male sterilisation and permanent birth control.

 

Aspirin and anti inflammatory drugs

There is some evidence that taking aspirin regularly may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Research has also looked at other non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as the painkiller ibuprofen (Nurofen or Brufen). Some studies have shown a reduced risk of prostate cancer in people taking these drugs. However, others studies have not and so overall the picture is unclear. 

It is important to remember that doctors and scientists do not recommend taking aspirin or other NSAIDs regularly. These drugs can damage the lining of your stomach and cause bleeding. Don't take aspirin or other NSAIDs regularly without checking with your doctor first.

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Updated: 14 January 2014