Unintentional weight loss has been identified as a potential indicator of an elevated risk for cancer diagnosis within the next year, according to a study conducted by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Unexplained weight loss should be addressed but is often ignored. Individuals experiencing weight loss without intentional changes in diet or exercise to consult with their doctor to explore potential underlying causes.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on January 23, 2024, revealed a noteworthy correlation between recent weight loss and an increased risk of various cancers. These include upper gastrointestinal tract cancers (esophageal, stomach, liver, biliary tract, and pancreatic cancer), hematological cancers (non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia), colorectal cancer, and lung cancer. Conversely, recent weight loss did not exhibit an association with an elevated risk of other cancer types, such as breast cancer, genitourinary cancer, brain cancer, or melanoma.
While weight loss can sometimes be attributed to positive lifestyle changes, such as increased exercise or healthier dietary habits, unexpected weight loss warrants attention. Seeking guidance from a primary care doctor is recommended to assess whether further evaluation is necessary, especially when weight loss is not linked to intentional lifestyle modifications.
The study examined 157,474 participants from two extensive longitudinal studies: the Nurses’ Health Study, initiated in 1976 for nurses aged 30 to 55, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, initiated in 1986 for male health professionals aged 40 to 75. Data collection included biennial reporting of weight and physical activity and quadrennial updates on dietary changes.
To distinguish between healthy and unhealthy weight loss, researchers categorized weight loss-promoting behaviors as “high” for those incorporating both dietary enhancements and increased physical activity, “medium” for those making only one change, and “low” for those making no alterations to diet and exercise.
The study challenged the common assumption that weight loss primarily occurs in advanced cancer stages, demonstrating that similar levels of weight loss were observed before the diagnosis of both early and late-stage diseases. This observation is crucial, suggesting that unintentional weight loss could serve as an early indicator of developing cancer, potentially facilitating earlier and more effective treatment.
While past research linked unexpected weight loss to increased cancer risk, this study adds strength to these findings. Notably, the research collected weight data prospectively over several decades, eliminating reliance on doctor visits to identify weight changes. However, it’s important to note that the study primarily focused on health professionals, limiting its generalizability to the broader U.S. population.
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