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The risk of prostate cancer increases as the number of lifetime female sexual partners increases, according to the results of a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The prostate is a male sex gland that is located between the bladder and the rectum. Prostate cancer occurs commonly in older men and is the second leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States. Prostate cancer is typically a disease of aging. It may persist undetected for many years without causing symptoms. In fact, most men die with prostate cancer not from prostate cancer.

It is currently believed that environmental factors may play a bigger role than genetic factors in the development of prostate cancer. Because prostate cancer develops over such a long period of time, the identification of causes and risk factors may offer promise for prevention. Often, environmental factors can be modified with the hope of reducing the risk of developing prostate cancer.

Although the cause of prostate cancer is unknown, researchers have long theorized that prostate cancer may develop as the result of a virus or an infection transmitted through sexual intercourse. Recently, researchers performed a case-control study of men ages 40-64 in Washington to evaluate the relationship between sexual behaviors and the risk of prostate cancer. The study involved 753 men with prostate cancer who were identified from the Seattle-Puget Sound Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Cancer Registry and 703 controls who were identified through random digit dialing and were matched to cases by age. The subjects provided information regarding sexual behavior, medical history and other prostate cancer risk factors during in-person interviews.

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The results indicated that the risk of prostate cancer increased directly with the lifetime number of female sexual partners, but not with male partners. (The number of men in the study with male sexual partners was small and there appeared to be no relationship between sexual orientation and prostate cancer.) Men who have had 30 or more sexual partners appear to be twice as likely to develop prostate cancer during middle age than men who have had fewer sexual partners. In addition, the results indicated that men who had previously been infected with gonorrhea had an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. There appeared to be no relationship between the lifetime frequency of sexual intercourse and the development of prostate cancer.

The researchers concluded that these results support the theory that prostate cancer may develop as the result of an infection. More research is needed to further define the relationship between the number of sexual partners and the development of prostate cancer. Although the causes of prostate cancer remain ambiguous, researchers continue to identify risk factors that are associated with this disease with the hopes of providing opportunities for prevention. (American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 153, No. 12, pp. 1152-1158, 2001)

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