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Ann Fam Med. 2005 Mar-Apr;3(2):131-7.

Transferrin saturation, dietary iron intake, and risk of cancer.

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Department of Family Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425, USA.



Transferrin saturation of more than 60% has been identified as a cancer risk factor. It is unclear whether dietary iron intake increases the risk of cancer among individuals with transferrin saturation of less than 60%. The purpose of this study was to examine the association of dietary iron intake and the risk of cancer among adults with increased transferrin saturation.


Analysis of a cohort study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey I Epidemiologic Follow-Up Study, was performed. US adults (aged 25 to 74 years at baseline) were followed up from baseline in 1971-1974 to 1992 (N = 6,309).


A total of 7.3% of the US population had a serum transferrin saturation of more than 45% at baseline. Intake of dietary iron was essentially uncorrelated with transferrin saturation (r = 0.04). Compared with individuals who had normal serum transferrin saturation and low dietary iron intake, individuals whose serum transferrin saturation was more than 45% and who had high dietary iron intake also had an increased adjusted relative risk of cancer (2.24; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.02-4.89). Increased risk was not found for individuals with a transferrin saturation of more than 45% but a normal dietary iron intake (hazard ratio, 1.02; 95% CI, 0.69-1.49). Transferrin saturation levels could be set as low as 41%, and the individuals with high transferrin saturation and high dietary iron intake would still have an increased adjusted relative risk of cancer (hazard ratio, 2.00; 95% CI, 1.04-3.82).


Among persons with increased transferrin saturation, a daily intake of dietary iron more than 18 mg is associated with an increased risk of cancer. Future research might focus on the benefits of dietary changes in those individuals with increased serum transferrin saturation.

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