Cancer warning: Common vitamin deficiency in UK associated with a 'fivefold' greater risk

Both biology and lifestyle can spur on the development of cancerous cells. Elucidating the risk factors in play is the ongoing task of researchers in the field. One lesser-known but nonetheless concerning association is vitamin B12 deficiency.

Researchers analysed serum concentrations of several nutrients (vitamin B12, folate, vitamin B6, riboflavin and homocysteine) in a study within the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention (ATBC) Study of male smokers, which was undertaken in Finland between 1985 and 1988.

The purpose of the ATBC study was to determine whether specific vitamin supplements prevented lung cancer and other cancers in a cohort of 29,133 male smokers in southwestern Finland.

For the analysis, control participants were matched to cases on age, date of serum collection and follow-up time.

Nutrient concentrations were measured in fasting serum samples collected at the beginning of the study (up to 17 years prior to cancer diagnosis).

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What did the researchers find out? Lower vitamin B12 serum concentrations at the beginning of the study were associated with a 5.8-fold increased risk of stomach cancer.

This association remained in participants who developed cancer more than 10 years after blood collection, and after restricting the analysis to participants with clinically normal vitamin B12 levels.

In this study, the authors found that low serum B12 was associated with a “fivefold increase” in risk of stomach cancer, the study stated.

It’s important to note that the research did not suggest causation but only association so further research is required to understand the link.

However, there is a causal mechanism that possibly explains the link.

The NHS explains: “If you have a vitamin B12 deficiency caused by pernicious anaemia, a condition where your immune system attacks healthy cells in your stomach, your risk of developing stomach cancer is increased.”

Pernicious anaemia is the leading cause of B12 deficiency in the UK.

How to treat B12 deficiency

The treatment for vitamin B12 deficiency depends on what’s causing the condition.

Most people can be easily treated with injections or tablets to replace the missing vitamins.

However, it’s unclear whether treating B12 deficiency can lower your risk of stomach cancer.

Stomach cancer – other risk factors

Anyone can get stomach cancer. It’s not always clear what causes it.

You might be more likely to get it if you:

  • Are over the age of 50
  • Are a man
  • Have a long-term infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
  • Have certain stomach conditions, such as long-term, severe acid reflux, gastritis or a condition called pernicious anaemia, which affects your immune system
  • Have a brother, sister or parent who had stomach cancer.

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