Birth Defects Tied to Higher Cancer Risk

Major birth defects are associated with an increased risk for cancer in childhood. New research suggests the risk persists into adulthood.

People born with birth defects have a higher risk for cancer throughout life, researchers report.

It has been generally known that major birth defects are associated with an increased risk for cancer in childhood. Now new research suggests that the risk persists, at a lower rate, into adulthood.

Researchers used birth and health records from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark on 62,295 cancer patients up to age 46, comparing them with 724,542 cancer-free controls. Over all, people born with a major birth defect, genetic or not, had a 74 percent increased risk of cancer compared with people without one. People born with a nongenetic defect had an overall 54 percent increased risk.

The study, in BMJ, found that the risks varied with the type of defect. Those born with neural tube defects had five times the risk of developing cancer as those born without, and people with genetic defects like Down syndrome were at more than six times the risk. On the other hand, those born with a cleft palate had no increased risk at all.

The lead author, Dagrun Slettebo Daltveit of the University of Bergen in Norway, said that cancer is rare in people under 50 in any case, and that the absolute increase in risk they found is small. “This adds information to the risk picture,” she said, “in the same way as having a family history of a disease. It does not mean that a person with a birth defect is condemned to have cancer.”

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