A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers.
But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Many people with one or more risk factors never get cancer, while others who get cancer may have had no known risk factors.
We don’t yet completely understand the causes of prostate cancer, but researchers have found several factors that may change the risk of getting it. For some of these factors, the link to prostate cancer risk is not yet clear.
Age is the strongest risk factor for prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is very rare before the age of 40, but the chance of having prostate cancer rises rapidly after age 50. Almost 2 out of 3 prostate cancers are found in men over the age of 65.
Prostate cancer occurs more often in African-American men thatn in men of other races. African-American men are also more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage, and are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer as white men. Prostate cancer occurs less often in Asian-American and Hispanic-Latino men than in non-Hispanic whites. The reasons for these racial and ethnic differences are not clear.
Prostate cancer is most common in North America, Northwestern Europe, Australia, and on Caribbean islands. It is less common in Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America. The reasons for this are not clear. More intensive screening in some developed countries likely accounts for at least part of this difference, but other factors are likely to be important as well. For example, lifestyle differences (diet, etc.) may be important: men of Asian decent living in the United States have a lower risk of prostate cancer than white Americans, but their risk is higher than that of men of similar backgrounds living in Asia.
Prostate cancer seems to run in some families, which suggests that in some cases there may be an inherited or genetic factor. Having a father or brother with prostate cancer more than doubles a man’s risk of developing the disease. The risk is higher for men with an affected brother than for those with an affected father. The risk is much higher for men with several affected relatives, particularly if their relatives were young at the time the cancer was found.
Scientists have found several inherited genes that seem to raise prostate cancer risk, but they probably account for only a small number of cases overall. Genetic testing for most of these genes is not yet available. Recently, some common gene variations have been linked to the risk of prostate cancer. Studies to confirm these results are needed to see if testing for the gene variants will be useful in predicting prostate cancer risk.
Some inherited genes raise the risk for more than one type of cancer. For example, inherited mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are the reason that breast and ovarian cancers are much more common in some families. Mutations in these genes may also increase prostate cancer risk in some men, but they account for a very small percentage of prostate cancer cases.
The exact role of diet in prostate cancer is not clear, but several different factors have been studied.
Men who eat a lot of red meat or high-fat dairy products appear to have a slightly higher chance of getting prostate cancer. These men also tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Doctors are not sure which of these factors is responsible for raising the risk.
Some studies have suggested that men who consume a lot of calcium (through food or supplements) may have a higher risk of developing advanced prostate cancer. Most studies have not found such a link with the levels of calcium found in the average diet, and it’s important to note that calcium is known to have other important health benefits.
Most studies have not found that being obese (having a high amount of extra body fat) is linked with a higher risk of getting prostate cancer. Some studies have found that obese men have a lower risk of getting low-grade (less dangerous) form of the disease, but a higher risk of getting more aggressive prostate cancer. The reasons for this are not clear. Studies have also found that obese men may be at greater risk of having more advanced prostate cancer and of dying from prostate cancer, but this was not seen in other studies.
Exercise has not been shown to reduce prostate cancer risk in most studies. But some studies have found that high levels of physical activity, particularly in older men, may lower the risk of advanced prostate cancer. More research in this area is needed.
A recent study linked smoking to a small increase in the risk of death from prostate cancer. This is a new finding and will need to be confirmed by other studies.
Inflammation of the prostate
Some studies have suggested that prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate gland) may be linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer, but other studies have not found such a link. Inflammation is often seen in smaples of prostate tissue that also contain cancer. The link between the tow is not yet clear, but this is an active area of research.
Researchers have also looked to see if sexually transmitted infections might increase the risk of prostate cancer, possibly by leading to inflammation of the prostate. So far, studies have not agreed, and no firm conclusions have been reached.