Obesity is not associated with a decrease in lung cancer risk for African Americans

Updated: Sep 15

Using data from over 53,000 lung cancer screenings carried out through the US National Lung Screening Trial, researchers from Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, found that while obesity appeared to be associated with a lower risk of lung cancer in the general population, this relationship did not hold true for African Americans. The researchers noted that future research should focus on body composition and distribution and its relationship with lung cancer diagnosis in NLST screening data to improve screening efforts and catch high-risk patients. The findings were featured in the paper, ‘Racial difference in BMI and lung cancer diagnosis: analysis of the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST)’, published in BMC Cancer.

Credit: Obesity Action Coalition

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the US, making up 25% of cancer deaths. With obesity rates simultaneously rising, researchers have investigated the connections between cancer risk and body mass index (BMI). Unlike most other cancer types, where higher BMI is associated with increased risk of cancer, research has established that people with higher BMI paradoxically have lower rates of lung cancer diagnosis.


Since 2013, recommendations from the US Preventative Services Task Force stated that individuals with a high risk for lung cancer, defined by age and smoking history, should be screened for lung cancer. The eligibility criteria were broadened in 2021 to reduce underscreening of populations at highest risk for lung cancer, including African Americans. The data from these screenings has become a vital resource for researchers searching for factors that increase risk of lung cancer diagnosis and mortality.


Led by Dr Hee-Soon Juon, professor of Population Science in the Department of Medical Oncology, the study included 53,452 participants in the NLST cohort, 3.9% were diagnosed with lung cancer, 43% were overweight and 28% were obese. BMI was inversely related to lung cancer diagnosis among Whites: those overweight (aOR = .83, 95%CI = .75-.93), obese (aOR = .64, 95%CI = .56-.73) were less likely to develop lung cancer, compared to those with normal weight. These relationships were not found among African-Americans.


Overall, the research team found that while previous research had analysed lung cancer screenings for general correlations between BMI and lung cancer diagnosis, no one was studying these trends within racial groups.


"African Americans have a lower rate of lung cancer than the general population but suffer from much higher mortality," explained Juon. "It is important we understand how this disease affects specific populations differently so we can address disparities in lung cancer mortality. While the mechanisms underlying the existing inverse correlation between BMI and lung cancer diagnosis are not yet understood, it is important we specify what populations this applies to so we can create targeted screenings and treatment options."

Through regression analysis, the researchers found consistent inverse relationships between cancer diagnosis and BMI for the overall population and the white population, individuals with lower BMI were more frequently diagnosed with lung cancer.


However, with African Americans this relationship was not statistically significant, meaning obesity is not associated with a decrease in cancer risk for this population. Understanding this relationship is important as there is the possibility of other unexplored and unknown mechanisms factoring into lung cancer risk that may be specific to certain populations.


One limitation of this study was that this large sample population had very low levels of African American participation, making up 5% of the study population, while African Americans account for 12.5% of the general US population. For a multitude of reasons, clinical trials commonly have low participation by vulnerable populations. Specifically in lung cancer screening, one possible explanation is that the high-risk criteria excluded many African American smokers who were found to have significantly higher rates of cancer at younger ages and lower smoking rates.


Although the screening criteria were broadened in 2021, this screening barrier, among others, has led to lower levels of African-American participation in this national data set. More research is necessary to make conclusive claims on the relationship between BMI and lung cancer diagnosis in African American populations, added Juon.


"Until then, our current conclusions are still our best tool in creating strategies for cancer screening and treatment."


This research highlights that trends in overall patient data may lead to disease mechanisms that are not applicable to all patient groups. Targeted approaches to various patient subgroups are needed if we are to achieve health equity in outcomes.


To access this paper, please click here