Lifestyle factors increase risk of breast cancer in women with BRCA faults

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new study has confirmed that women with faults in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 face a greater risk of developing cancer, and that lifestyle factors can further increase the risk in this small subset of women.

Researchers at the UK charity The Genesis Appeal carried out a study of 1,442 women with these particular gene faults, which are carried by around one in 500 people and are associated with an 85 to 90 per cent lifetime risk of breast cancer in women.

The researchers found that the risk of breast cancer in this group of women has increased three to fivefold over the last 60 years.

While women carrying BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations who were born before 1920 only had a 7.5 per cent chance of breast cancer by 40 years of age, those born after 1960 had up to a 40 per cent chance of developing the disease by their 40th birthday.

The findings reflect a similar study carried out in Iceland and experts believe that the trend is linked to a decline in healthy living, including a worsening in people's diet and physical activity levels. Lifestyle choices including having babies later in life, less breastfeeding and taking HRT - these choices all play a part in the increased risk.

Experts recommend a number of steps to reduce the risk of breast cancer, including limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding long-term use of HRT, and exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.

Dr Alison Ross, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, commented on the research, saying: "This study confirms previous research showing that the small proportion of women who carry a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at a much higher risk of getting breast cancer.

"The fact that this risk is greater in women born more recently reflects the additional influence of changing lifestyle factors on a woman's chances of developing this disease. But it's difficult to link these results to future trends in breast cancer risk in the general population.

"We do know that certain lifestyle factors influence breast cancer risk and it's important that women are aware of these factors, such as alcohol and HRT."