Brain tumors are more common in the upper class

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published June 21, 2016

Key Takeaways

The higher you are on the socioeconomic ladder, the more likely you are to have a brain tumor, according to a large observational study published online June 20, 2016 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

“We found that higher socioeconomic position was associated with an increased risk of glioma in Swedish men and women, and to a lesser extent with acoustic neuroma in men and meningioma in women,” the authors stated in their article.

The researchers used higher education, income, and occupational group as indicators of socioeconomic position. Those who fared better by these measures also tended to have higher risks for brain tumor.

  • Higher education: Men with 3 or more years of university education were 19% more likely to develop a glioma than men with compulsory primary education (9 years). The risk for women with at least 3 years of university education was 23% higher for glioma and 16% higher for meningioma than for women with primary education.

  • Income: Men with the highest disposable income had a 14% increased incidence of glioma compared with men with the lowest disposable income. Adjusting for potentially influential factors, such as marital status and education, only marginally affected this risk. Disposable income didn’t increase the risk of meningioma or acoustic neuroma in men, and had no effect on risk for any type of brain tumor in women.

  • Occupational group: Compared with men in manual labor jobs, men with professional and managerial occupations (intermediate and high non-manual jobs) had a 20% higher risk of glioma and a 50% increased risk of acoustic neuroma. For women, the risk of glioma was 26% higher and the risk of meningioma was 14% higher among those in professional and managerial roles compared with those in manual roles.

Single men had a significantly lower risk of glioma but a higher risk of meningioma than married/co-habiting men. Among women, marital status had no significant effect for any type of brain tumor. “Some hypothesize that women are more likely than men to notice symptoms in their partners, which could explain the lack of association between marital status and glioma in women,” the authors wrote.

Because this was an observational study, the researchers could draw no firm conclusions about cause and effect, although they speculated that people with higher socioeconomic status might be more likely to get diagnosed with cancer than those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. However, the universal healthcare system in Sweden should minimize this barrier, they added.

One weakness of the study is that it lacks information on lifestyle factors that could influence brain tumor risk. “However, there is no or limited evidence that smoking, alcohol consumption, sedentary lifestyle, or other lifestyle factors affect risk of brain tumor,” the authors noted.

So, should people in the upper class be more concerned about brain tumors?

Not especially, said Sir David Spiegelhalter, PhD, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, in Cambridge, UK. No matter what, brain tumors are still rare, he indicated.

“For example, in each group of 3,000 men of the lowest educational level, we would expect 5 to be diagnosed with a glioma over 18 years. In 3,000 men with the highest educational level, we expect 6 gliomas,” Dr. Spiegelhalter said. “This is a classic example of where ‘big data’ can find results that are of ‘statistical’ but not of practical significance.”

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