Causes and Risk Factors for Leukemia

August 5, 2022 Off By Elaina Aleta

Lighting up a cigarette


The causes of the development of leukemia are still largely uncertain. However, there are various factors that increase the risk of developing leukemia. These include a certain hereditary predisposition, radioactive rays, and X-rays, as well as certain chemical substances. Viruses also play a role in some rare types of leukemia. Another risk factor is probably cigarette smoking, making e-cigarettes a safer alternative. However, no triggering factor can be detected for a very large proportion of leukemias.

Risk factor: hereditary predisposition

Leukemias are not hereditary in the true sense. However, it has been found that the risk of developing this type of cancer is increased if malignant diseases have already occurred more frequently in the family. This suggests that a certain predisposition may play a role in the development of leukemia.

Certain hereditary conditions can also increase the risk of leukemia. An example of this is the so-called Down syndrome, which is caused by a congenital genetic change. People who suffer from this syndrome also have a 20-fold increased risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

In addition, leukemia cells have been shown to often have changes in chromosomes. Chromosomes are the carriers of human genetic material, which are present in a very specific number in each cell. The best-known example of such a change is the so-called Philadelphia chromosome, which is found in a very high percentage of the leukemia cells of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). It is caused by the exchange of gene segments of two different chromosomes. The resulting genetic defect is largely responsible for turning a healthy cell into a leukemia cell. However, such genetic changes are not congenital and are not inherited, they occur only in the course of life.

Risk factor: Radioactive radiation and X-rays

Radioactive radiation can, as has been shown after the atomic bomb disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, promote the occurrence of acute leukemia in particular. In particular, high-energy radiation causes damage to the genetic material of those body cells that often divide. This also includes the cells of the bone marrow, which are responsible for blood formation. Damage to blood-forming cells can lead to the development of leukemia. The following applies: The higher the radiation dose to which the person was exposed, the higher the risk of disease.


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Risk factor: Chemical substances

Various chemical substances can also promote the development of leukemia. These include, for example, benzene and other organic solvents that are often used in industry. Furthermore, insecticides (insecticides) and plant protection products (herbicides) are likely to contribute to an increased risk of leukemia.

Also, some drugs used to treat cancer (cytostatics and immunosuppressants) can impair the function of the bone marrow and therefore promote the development of leukemia in the long term. Therefore, before treatment with these drugs, doctors will carefully weigh the benefits and risks of their use.

Risk factor: Viruses

Studies have shown that certain viruses play a role in the development of a very rare form of leukemia, the so-called human T-cell leukemia: The so-called HTL viruses I and II. Human T-cell leukemia is extremely rare in this country, it occurs mainly in Japan. In all other human leukemias, there is still insufficient evidence that viruses or other pathogens would be involved in the disease. These leukemias are therefore also considered non-contagious or transmissible.

Other risk factors

Experts estimate that about 10 percent of all leukemia diseases are caused by cigarette smoking. For example, the risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia is increased by 40% in active smokers and by 25% in former smokers. In chronic lymphocytic and myeloid leukemia (CLL and CML) as well as in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), age is also considered an important risk factor: With increasing age, the risk of developing these forms of leukemia also increases.