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Risk factors for leukemia

Each year, more than 60,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia. The risk of developing leukemia increases with age, but the disease may also develop in people under 20 years old.

What causes leukemia?

Leukemia develops when the DNA in blood cells called leukocytes mutate or change, disabling their ability to control growth and division. In some cases, these mutated cells escape the immune system and grow out of control, crowding out healthy cells in the bloodstream.

While the exact cause of a person’s leukemia may not be known, certain risk factors are linked to the disease, including exposure to radiation. Known risk factors for leukemia include:


Gender: Men are more likely than woman to develop leukemia.

Age: The risk of most leukemias increase with age. The median age of a patient diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is 65 years and older. However, most cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) occur in people under 20 years old. The median age of an ALL patient at diagnosis is 15.

Blood disorders: Certain blood disorders, including chronic myeloproliferative disorders such as polycythemia vera, idiopathic myelofibrosis and essential thrombocytopenia increase the chances of developing AML.

Family history: Most leukemias have no familial link. However, if you are a first-degree relative of a CLL patient, or if you have an identical twin who has or had AML or ALL, you may be at an increased risk for developing the disease.

Congenital syndromes: Some congenital syndromes including Down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia and Blackfan-Diamond syndrome seem to raise the risk of AML.


Smoking: Although smoking may not be a direct cause of leukemia, smoking cigarettes does increase the risk of developing AML.

Other conditions 

Radiation: Exposure to high-energy radiation (e.g., atomic bomb explosions) and intense exposure to low-energy radiation from electromagnetic fields (e.g., power lines).

Chemicals: Long-term exposure to certain pesticides or industrial chemicals like benzene is considered a risk for leukemia.

Electromagnetic fields: Prolonged exposure, such as living near power lines, may increase a person’s risk for developing ALL.

Previous cancer therapy: Certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for other cancers are considered leukemia risk factors.

Next topic: What are the symptoms of leukemia?

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