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Excess body weight before age 50 may be strongly associated with a higher risk of dying from pancreatic cancer than excess weight at older ages, according to a study presented at the 2019 American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting.

Researchers examined data from almost one million adults in the United States with no history of cancer that were followed from 1982 to 2014. Participants reported their height and weight at the start of the study, which researchers used to calculate body mass index (BMI). Of the more than 8,000 participants who died from pancreatic cancer, researchers found those with a higher BMI at earlier ages were more likely to die from the disease. For example, those who had reported excess weight of about 30 pounds between ages 30 and 49 had a 25 percent increased risk of dying, compared to a 13 percent increased risk in those between 70 and 89.

Dr. Pamela Hodul

“The findings not only confirmed that obesity was linked to pancreatic cancer, but more importantly suggest that being overweight at a younger age increased one’s lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Pamela Hodul, a surgical oncologist in Moffitt’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program. “Cancer risk in patients who are obese has been linked to chronic inflammation, insulin-resistant diabetes, as well as both direct and indirect effects on hormones that participate in the regulation of cell growth.”

According to the National Health and Examination Surveys, 70 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 20 are either overweight or obese. Obesity has been linked to many gastrointestinal malignancies including stomach, esophageal, liver, colorectal and pancreas cancer.

Hodul says childhood obesity is also a major public health concern, with nearly 17 percent of children being classified as obese, most between ages 12 and 19. Childhood obesity has also been linked to subsequent obesity in adulthood.

“The key to the prevention of many gastrointestinal malignancies, particularly pancreatic cancer, may lie in the promotion and maintenance of healthy lifestyles in our country’s youth,” said Hodul.