Menopause can change more than your physical characteristics and mood. It can also raise the risk of certain long-term health problems.
It’s a downright sobering fact that postmenopausal women have a higher risk of osteoporosis, also called “brittle bone” disease, coronary artery disease and cancer.
It’s not the onset of menopause per se that “causes” cancer, but rather that menopause is traditionally associated with growing older and a person’s risk increases with age. There are, of course, some caveats.
“Starting menopause after age 55 increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer and endometrial cancer. That’s probably because she’s been exposed to more estrogen,” says Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.
She explained, “During a woman’s menstrual cycle, estrogen stimulates the uterus and breast tissue, so the more menstrual periods a woman has, the longer these tissues are exposed to estrogen.”
Starting menopause later can also increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer. Researchers suspect that this may be because these women have had more ovulations, she said.
You can’t stop the aging clock, but you can take action to slow it down and substantially reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and adult-onset diabetes.
Researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson tested the American Cancer Society’s Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention and found postmenopausal women who faithfully followed the guidelines had a 17 percent lower risk for cancer incidence, 20 percent lower risk for cancer-related death, and 27 percent lower risk for death from all causes.
The results of the University of Arizona study were published today in Cancer Prevention Research.
“The message is simple and clear: If you want to reduce your risk for cancer, even later in life, eat a healthy diet, be active daily, avoid or limit alcohol, and don’t smoke,” said Cynthia Thomson, Ph.D., R.D., professor of public health at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and lead author of the study.
In addition to avoiding using any tobacco products, the American Cancer Society guidelines for cancer prevention include four healthy lifestyle behaviors:
Watch Your Body Weight.
Be as lean as possible throughout life without being underweight: Avoid excess weight gain at all ages. For those who are currently overweight or obese, losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start.
Be Physically Active.
Everyone, regardless of age should adopt a physically active lifestyle. Doing some physical activity above usual activities, no matter what one's level of activity, can have many health benefits.
• Adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, or an equivalent combination, preferably spread throughout the week.
• Children and adolescents should engage in at least an hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day, with vigorous intensity activity occurring at least three days each week.
• Limit your sedentary behavior such as sitting, lying down, watching television, or other forms of screen-based entertainment.
Eat A Healthy Diet.
Choose foods and beverages in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Sticking to a mostly plant-based diet is preferable.
• Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.
• Eat at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
• Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.
Avoid or Limit Your Alcohol Consumption.
Drink no more than one drink per day for women or two per day for men.
“Although our genes influence our risk of cancer, most of the difference in cancer risk between people is due to factors that are not inherited. [Following these guidelines] may greatly reduce a person's lifetime risk of developing or dying from cancer and lower the risk of risk of developing heart disease and diabetes,” according to the American Cancer Society.
For the study, Thomson and colleagues analyzed data available from the largest U.S. study of postmenopausal women — the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) Observational Study — that enrolled 65,838 women age 50-79 at 40 clinical centers across the United States.
Participants were followed for an average of 8.3 years, and during this period, 8,632 cancers were diagnosed and 2,356 deaths due to cancer were recorded.
Compared with women who followed the guidelines the least, women who faithfully followed the guidelines — about 1 percent of the participants — had 22 percent lower risk for breast cancer and 52 percent lower risk for colorectal cancer, in addition to having lower risk for all cancers combined, and for death related and unrelated to cancer.
The researchers found most women in the study group were somewhere in between, adhering to some of the guidelines better than others.
“Our results support the ACS guidelines for cancer prevention. Certainly, efforts to identify complementary factors that can reduce risk further should be supported as well, because diet and activity alone do not account for the majority of risk,” Thomson said in a press release.
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and watersport junkie who lives in San Diego with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in publications internationally.
What is Perimenonpause, Menopause & Postmenopause? Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 6 January 2014 at
Cancer Risk Lower in Women Adhering to Cancer Prevention Guidelines. AACR press release. http://www.aacr.org/home/public--media/aacr-in-the-news.aspx?d=3256 Jan 8. 2014. And “Nutrition and Physical Activity Cancer Prevention Guidelines, Cancer Risk, and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Cynthia A. Thomson et al. doi: 10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-13-0258. Cancer Prev Res January 2014 7; 42. Abstract at:
American Cancer Society (ACS) Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines. January/February 2012 issue of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, and is available for free online at:
Menopause and cancer risk. Focus on Health. MD Anderson Cancer Center. Laura Nathan-Garner. October 2012.
Reviewed January 8, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith