While lifestyle factors may impact your risk for developing breast cancer, the risk factors with the greatest impact include sex and age.

Breast cancer risk is the result of various factors. The two factors with the biggest impact on your risk for developing breast cancer include being female and past the age of 50.

Certain lifestyle choices may affect your breast cancer risk. Some strategies can help reduce your risk. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your risk.

And if you’ve had breast cancer, these lifestyle choices can also help reduce the risk of a recurrence.

Language matters

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.”

Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings. Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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The following risk factors for breast cancer cannot be controlled:

  • Although people of all genders can get breast cancer, being female is the top risk factor for breast cancer. Breast cancer is 100 times less common in white men than white women, and breast cancer is 70 times less common in Black men than Black women, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
  • Your risk of developing breast cancer increases as you age. According to the CDC, breast cancer is most prevalent in females ages 50 and older.
  • Having a family or personal history of breast cancer means you have a higher risk.
  • Some people carry genetic mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 that make them more susceptible to breast cancer. Genetic testing is the only way to know if you carry this genetic mutation.
  • If you were younger than 12 when you started menstruating or older than 55 at menopause, your risk of breast cancer is also slightly increased.
  • If you’ve received radiation to the chest, especially as a child or young adult, you might be at an increased risk.

Ethnicity as a risk factor

Different ethnic groups and populations from certain geographic areas may tend to carry different variants of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, making them more susceptible to developing breast cancer. Data suggests that people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are more likely to be carriers of these genes.

Other geographic populations, including Norwegian, Dutch, and Icelandic peoples, can also have these mutations that raise their risk of breast cancer.

White females are at a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer than Black and Hispanic females. Native American and Asian females appear to have a lower risk of developing breast cancer than females of other ethnicities.

While they have a lower incidence of breast cancer than white females, Black females are more likely to die of breast cancer. They are also more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier age and to have more advanced and aggressive disease. One reason for some of the disparities between ethnic groups may be inequities in healthcare.

Research into the breast cancer disparities from 2022 suggests that they may result from a combination of the following:

  • social determinants of health, or the conditions in which people live that affect health, quality of life, and health risks
  • allostatic load, or the effects of chronic stress
  • the biology of the tumor
  • access to high quality care and clinical trials

Benign breast conditions as risk factors

A history of certain benign breast conditions is another risk factor that can’t be controlled. One of these conditions includes having dense breast tissue, which can be seen on a mammogram.

Atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH), atypical lobular hyperplasia (ALH), and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) are atypical cells that can develop in your breast tissue. These atypical cells can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

A doctor can identify these conditions through a biopsy. The doctor may recommend taking a medication to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

Some risk factors may be related to lifestyle, including:

  • Taking birth control pills or hormone therapy after menopause may increase your risk of breast cancer.
  • Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. If you have two to three drinks daily, you may have a 20 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause, increases your risk.

You may gain some protection against breast cancer by breastfeeding or chestfeeding.

Pregnancy as a risk factor

Pregnancy also seems to play a role. People who get pregnant at a younger age or have many pregnancies tend to have a reduced risk of breast cancer. Having no children or having your first child after age 30 seems to increase the risk a little.

But pregnancy may also raise the risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer.

The ACS has updated its guidelines for cancer prevention in 2020. These guidelines were developed to help individuals reduce their cancer risk through lifestyle and diet. These guidelines recommend:

  • achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight throughout your life
  • being physically active
  • eating whole food that is high in nutrients, which can help you maintain a moderate body weight
  • eating a variety of vegetables and fruits
  • eating whole grains
  • limiting red and processed meat
  • limiting sugar-sweetened beverages
  • limiting highly processed foods and refined grain products
  • avoiding alcohol or limiting your intake, if you drink alcohol

According to the ACS, studies about diet and breast cancer have had mixed results. Studies of vitamin levels and breast cancer have also had mixed results.

But 2020 research shows that having an eating plan rich in red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and highly processed foods and physical inactivity are risk factors for all types of cancer.

Being overweight is also a known risk factor.

To reduce your cancer risk, the American Cancer Society recommends maintaining a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25 as a good target.

Here are a few tips for healthful eating:

  • Watch portion sizes. Take a little less than you think you’ll eat. Eat slowly, so you’ll recognize when you’re starting to get full before you overeat.
  • Review food labels carefully. “Low-fat” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy or low calorie. Avoid processed foods that are high in calories but offer little or no nutritional value.
  • Eat veggies and fruits. Aim for 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits a day. Fresh, canned, and frozen foods are all acceptable.
  • Eat whole grains. Choose whole-grain foods over those made with refined grains.
  • Choose healthy proteins. Eat beans, chicken, or fish in place of processed and red meats.
  • Check the fats. Look for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats.
  • Watch what you drink. Avoid alcoholic drinks or limit your intake if you drink alcohol. The ACS guidelines recommend that women consume no more than one drink per day and men consume no more than two. Replace high calorie, sugary drinks with water.
  • Set realistic goals. Don’t rush any weight loss. Crash diets can be unhealthy and unsustainable. For some people, keeping a food journal may be helpful.

Also, the ACS recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. If you choose activities you enjoy, you may be more likely to stick to them.

Small changes throughout the day can also help you get more movement in. This can include choosing parking spaces that force you to walk a little or using stairs instead of the elevator. You can also try to avoid long periods of inactivity. If you spend your day sitting at a desk, take a few minutes every hour to get up and stretch or incorporate standing into your routine, if you can.

In addition to lowering your risk of cancer, a few dietary changes and regular exercise can help boost your energy levels and mood.

If you’re overweight or have a medical condition, talk with a doctor before starting a strenuous exercise program. Working with a personal trainer or nutritionist might also be beneficial.

It’s important that you discuss breast cancer screening options with a doctor, especially if you have known risk factors. A doctor can advise you on the best ways to maintain your health.