Healthy lifestyle can reduce breast cancer risk even in women with family history

In collaboration with Adfero

Leading a healthy lifestyle can help women reduce their risk of breast cancer even if they have a family history of the disease, it has been claimed.

According to Dr Robert E Gramling, lead author of a new study published online by the journal Breast Cancer Research, many women who have a close relative with breast cancer fear their risk for the disease will remain high no matter what they do.

However, a study of more than 85,000 postmenopausal women suggests regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and drinking less alcohol can help women even if they have a familial predisposition for the disease.

Dr Gramling, an associate professor of family medicine and community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, looked at data from the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study, which dates back to 1993.

He and his team focused on women between the ages of 50 and 79, although they excluded those who had a personal history of breast cancer or close relative with early-onset breast cancer, which can indicate a stronger genetic predisposition.

The researchers found that among women with at least one close relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer after the age of 45, and who kept to three "breast healthy" behaviours (exercising for at least 20 minutes five times a week, keeping a healthy body weight and drinking no more than one alcoholic beverage a day), the rate of invasive breast cancer was 5.94 per 1,000 woman-years.

This compared to a rate of 6.97 per 1,000 woman-years for women with a family history of the disease, but who didn't do any of the healthy behaviours determined by the research team.

Meanwhile, women without a family history of the disease who lived healthily in all three ways had a breast cancer rate of 3.51 per 1,000 woman-years, which was lower than the rate of 4.67 per 1,000 woman-years for those who did not keep to the healthy behaviours.

Using this data, the researchers were able to conclude that doing the three healthy behaviours reduced the risk of breast cancer by the same amount in women with and without a family history of the disease.

"It's important to note that a family history of breast cancer can arise in part due to shared unhealthy behaviours that have been passed down for generations," Dr Gramling said.

"Untangling the degree to which genes, environments, and behaviours contribute to the disease is difficult. But our study shows that engaging in a healthy lifestyle can help women, even when familial predisposition is involved."

Jessica Harris, Cancer Research UK's senior health information officer, said: "This study is good news for women who have a family history of breast cancer. Whether or not you have relatives who have had breast cancer, living a healthy lifestyle can cut the chances of developing the disease. Decades of research have shown that keeping a healthy weight, drinking less alcohol and being active can all reduce breast cancer risk. This latest study underlines the impact that these healthy lifestyle choices can have."


  • Gramling, R. et al (2010). Family history of later-onset breast cancer, breast healthy behavior and invasive breast cancer among postmenopausal women: a cohort study Breast Cancer Research, 12 (5) DOI: 10.1186/bcr2727