A recent finding may help to explain why women who have children before the age of 30 have less risk of breast cancer than those who become pregnant later in life or never have children.
Researchers at the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center found that young mothers gain protection from a protein called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). AFP is produced in the livers of fetuses and sometimes is introduced to a mother’s blood.
In a study of 225 pregnant women who gave blood samples between 1959 and 1966, high levels of AFP were associated with lessened cancer risk for very young women. The opposite was true for young and middle-aged women. “After age 27 years, a higher maternal serum AFP level is not protective and may increase risk,” read the report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Although its exact purpose is not known, research suspect that AFP serves as a growth regulator in fetuses, and disappears shortly after birth. AFP has been found to reappear later in life in the bodies of adults with liver, prostate and other cancers.