Premature Birth Significantly Increases Risk of Esophageal Cancer
Mar 1, 2005 - 5:24:38 PM

In the journal Gastroenterology, researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden publish findings illustrating that premature birth is associated with an up to 11-fold increase in the relative risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma. This is the first study linking prenatal factors to the risk of developing esophageal cancer decades later.

"Gastroesophageal reflux disease is potentially the connection between premature birth and esophageal adenocarcinoma. GERD is one of the few established risk factors for esophageal cancer, and is quite common among infants born prematurely or with low birth weight," noted lead study author Magnus Kaijser, MD.

After following more than 3,000 individuals for more than 40 years, researchers found that low birth weight (less than 4.4 lbs.) significantly increases the risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma. The study also found birth before 35 weeks of gestation was associated with a more than six-fold increase in risk.

Researchers emphasize that the study findings are based on small numbers and not cause for alarm, but illustrate the need for further research to confirm or refute the link between prenatal exposures and esophageal cancer. The time window of interest for research on esophageal cancer must be broadened, since this study suggests that the disease may be initiated far earlier than previously known.

Esophageal cancer is three to four times more common among men than women and about 50 percent more common among African Americans than among whites. Because esophageal cancer is usually diagnosed at a late stage, most people with the disease eventually die. According to the American Cancer Society, 14,520 people will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the United States in 2005 and 13,570 will die from the disease.

At one time, stomach cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Over the last few decades, the incidence has declined, partially due to increased use of refrigeration and antibiotics to treat childhood infections. Only 22 percent of patients with stomach cancer are diagnosed at an early enough stage to bring about significant survival benefit. In 2005, approximately 21,860 people will be diagnosed with stomach cancer and 11,550 are expected to die from the disease.

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