Risk factors and causes

Around 4,800 people in the UK are diagnosed with myeloma each year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Doctors don’t know what causes myeloma, but a number of things are known to increase the risk of it developing:

  • MGUS – Research shows that almost everyone with myeloma has had MGUS first. But not everyone who has MGUS goes on to develop myeloma.
  • Age – The risk of myeloma increases with age. It’s rare in people under 40 and is most commonly diagnosed after the age of 65.
  • Race – Myeloma is twice as common in African-Caribbean people than white people.
  • Radiation – People who have been exposed to high levels of radiation may have a higher risk. This includes people who work in the nuclear power industry.
  • Family history – People who have a close family member with myeloma have a slightly increased risk of developing it.
  • Weight – Some research suggests that being overweight may increase the risk of developing myeloma. Keeping to a healthy body weight may reduce the risk of myeloma and other cancers.
  • A weakened immune system – A weak immune system increases the risk of developing myeloma. Some conditions reduce immunity, such as HIV. People taking medicines to weaken (suppress) their immune system after an organ transplant are also at a higher risk.
  • Autoimmune disease – Autoimmune diseases develop when the immune system attacks healthy body tissue by mistake. Some autoimmune disorders can slightly increase the risk of developing myeloma. These include pernicious anaemia, haemolytic anaemia and lupus.
  • Occupation – It has been suggested that people in certain jobs have an increased risk of myeloma, possibly due to exposure to harmful substances. However, there is very little evidence to support this.

Like other cancers, myeloma isn’t infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.

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How myeloma is diagnosed

You may see your GP or meet a specialist doctor at the hospital. They will examine you and tell you which tests you need.