Harvard Men's Health Watch

Medical memo: Paternity and prostate cancer: Can a look down the family tree provide clues?

Medical memo

Paternity and prostate cancer: Can a look down the family tree provide clues?

 Scientists don't know what causes prostate cancer, but heredity certainly plays a role. In 1998, scientists discovered the first prostate cancer gene, which they named HPC1. Since then, a number of other prostate cancer genes have been identified. Together with mutations that have not yet come to light, they help explain why men with a strong family history of prostate cancer face an increased risk of developing the disease.

In a sense, these important genetic studies look up the family tree to hunt for factors in previous generations that might affect a man's chances of developing prostate cancer. But can a man's offspring also provide clues? According to two studies of paternity and prostate cancer, the answer is perhaps.

In the first study, scientists in Sweden evaluated 48,850 men who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer between 1958 and 1998 and a similar number of randomly selected, age-matched men without the disease. Next, they checked to see if fathering children was linked to the risk of prostate cancer. When the results were tallied, a low fertility rate appeared to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Men who were childless or who had fathered only one child were 17% less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than men who had fathered two or more children.

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