Can you still fit into the dress you wore to your high-school graduation? If so, congratulations. You may have significantly reduced your risk of breast cancer, according to a study last week in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital looked at data from 87,145 women whose weight changes were followed for more than two decades. Among women who never used postmenopausal hormone therapy, weight gain since the age of 18 correlated with increased risk. The more weight a woman put on, the greater her risk. For example, women in this group who gained 55 pounds since they were 18 had double the risk of women who maintained their weight.
But the JAMA study also suggests that it's never too late to drop pounds. Non-hormone users who maintained a weight loss of at least 22 pounds after menopause lowered their breast-cancer risk by 60 percent compared with women who didn't take weight off. This is actually encouraging news, says lead researcher Heather Eliassen, an instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "We have identified many risk factors for breast cancer," she says, "but most of them are not easy to modify. Weight is one of the few risk factors that you actually can change."