Anyone can develop brain cancer, but some factors increase a person’s risk. These risk factors vary depending on the type of brain cancer and include genetic, individual, and demographic factors.

Brain cancers either directly attack the brain and surrounding structures or spread to the brain from elsewhere in the body. Having another type of cancer is a primary brain cancer risk factor. However, other factors, such as age and a family history of cancer, influence this risk.

A risk factor increases the likelihood of developing brain cancer. However, having one or more risk factors does not mean that someone will have cancer. Many people without any risk factors can also develop brain cancer.

This article discusses the risk factors for brain cancer and how to address some of them.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Anyone can develop brain cancer, including individuals with no risk factors or family history of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), most brain tumors develop in people who do not have any risk factors.

However, some factors will typically increase the risk of brain cancer, including genetic, environmental, demographic, and individual factors. People with one or more of these will have a higher likelihood of brain cancer than someone without them.

Exposure to certain environmental factors could increase the risk of brain cancer. These include:

  • Toxic substances: Exposure to toxic substances, such as paint, solvents, and some pesticides, could increase the risk of brain cancer. For example, a 2014 study found a link between heavy metals and genetic mutations that lead to cancer. However, research into this link is ongoing and not yet conclusive.
  • Electromagnetic fields: Some people claim that electromagnetic fields from cell phones could increase the likelihood of developing brain tumors. Nevertheless, there is still no clear evidence to support this claim.
  • Nitrates: Some research suggests that nitrites and nitrates in cured meats, some cosmetics, and cigarettes could increase a person’s risk of brain cancer.
  • Viruses: Exposure to certain viruses, such as the Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus, could make brain cancer more likely to occur.

A family history of brain tumors can mean that an individual may have inherited a genetic mutation that causes the condition. Genetic disorders that might increase the risk of brain cancer include:

  • Neurofibromatosis: This condition occurs when mutations of the NF1 or NF2 gene increase the risk of cancers such as schwannomas, gliomas, and meningiomas.
  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome: Changes in the VHL gene make the development of numerous benign and cancerous tumors, including in the brain and spinal cord, more likely.
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome: Changes in the TP53 gene increase the risk of gliomas in the brain and other areas of the body, such as the breasts.
  • Turcot syndrome: This is where people have mutations on the APC, MLH1, or PMS2 genes that increase the risk of brain tumors and gliomas.
  • Tuberous sclerosis: Changes in the TSC1 or TSC2 gene make it more likely for benign tumors in the brain and elsewhere in the body to occur.

Certain factors and conditions may affect the risk of developing brain cancer. These include:

  • Body mass index (BMI): A higher BMI can increase the risk of several types of cancer, which may spread to the brain.However, a 2020 study found no clear association between a higher BMI and an increased risk of brain cancer.
  • History of allergies and eczema: Having a history of allergies or eczema could lower the likelihood of developing some brain cancers. However, more research is necessary to investigate this association.
  • Weakened immune system: Individuals with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of central nervous system lymphoma, which affects the brain and spinal cord.
  • Head injury: People with a history of head injuries may be at a higher risk of brain tumors. However, research on this topic remains inconclusive. A 2006 study found that people with brain tumors were more likely to report a history of head trauma. However, the study authors suggest that the brain tumor can affect memory.

There are some general risk factors for cancer that could cause brain cancer or a type of cancer that spreads to the brain, such as:

  • Older age: Aging increases the risk of developing cancer.
  • Sex: According to the ACS, females are slightly more likely to get brain cancer than males. However, males are more likely to develop a malignant brain tumor than females.
  • History of cancer: Individuals with current or previous cancers have a higher likelihood of developing brain cancer.

It is not possible to eliminate all brain cancer risk factors. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest some tips for lowering the risk of cancer, including:

Brain tumors are typically serious but may be treatable. In some cases, proper care and treatment can help a person overcome the condition. An early diagnosis is also critical for successful cancer treatment.

Most individuals with brain cancer risk factors will not develop the condition. However, being aware of these risk factors can encourage a person to take preventive measures, such as quitting smoking, following a balanced diet, and getting regular exercise.