University study links thyroid cancer risk to obesity

Most of us know of the health risks associated with obesity, and even just being overweight. The risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and stroke – just to name a few – increases with the size of your waist once it gets above the healthy range.

Now, research has uncovered another serious condition associated with obesity – thyroid cancer. In the past four decades, the rate of thyroid cancer has gone through the roof and obesity, it seems, is the main culprit.

According to the federal government department Cancer Australia, there were 361 cases of thyroid cancer in 1982, compared to 3154 cases in 2017. That’s a huge increase, even allowing for the nation’s population increase during that period.

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To give it proper perspective, it represents an increase from 2.7 cases per 100,000 people (1.6 for males and 3.7 for females) in 1982 to 12 cases per 100,000 in 2017.

The exact cause of thyroid cancer is unknown, but there is mounting evidence to suggest that the increase in incidence is linked to a higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.

Australians collectively have been gaining weight at an unhealthy rate in the same four-decade period. In 1980, roughly 60 per cent of Australian adults had a healthy weight. Today, that figure has slipped dramatically to around 35 per cent.

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Roughly two-thirds of Australians today are an unhealthy weight. The vast majority of those are overweight, and a significant proportion are classified as obese. In 1980, just 10 per cent of adults in Australia were obese. In 2012, the figure was 25 per cent and, by 2018 it was beyond 30 per cent and still rising.

When it comes to thyroid cancer, there is one piece of relatively good news. The most common types – papillary and follicular cancers – have a more than 98 per cent cure rate if diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

Linking obesity to thyroid cancer has been a relatively recent development. In 2016, a press release from the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that there was sufficient evidence to link excess body fat to eight cancer sites not previously confirmed. The thyroid was one.

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Situated just below the larynx (your ‘Adam’s apple’), the thyroid gland produces two hormones that control how the body regulates many metabolic processes. The three main ailments that affect the thyroid are hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid that produces too many hormones), hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and cancer.

The thyroid gland plays an important role in controlling many of the body’s functions, so the onset of thyroid cancer can have very serious ramifications.

Late last year, a study led by Maarit A. Laaksonen, of the University of New South Wales school of mathematics and statistics, published data that supported the WHO’s 2016 findings. The study’s findings, published in the International Journal of Cancer, suggest that many thyroid cancers could be prevented through improved weight management.

For those looking for confirmation of the dangers of being overweight, this news adds further ‘weight’ to the evidence.

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