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Evidence is accumulating that elevated circulating insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) is related to increased cancer risk. The identification of hormonal, reproductive and lifestyle characteristics influencing its synthesis and bioavailability is of particular interest. Data from 400 women, who served as controls in two case–control studies nested within the same prospective cohort study, were combined. IGF-I, IGF-binding proteins 1, 2 and 3 (IGFBP-1, -2, -3) and insulin were measured in serum samples from all subjects and cotinine in 186 samples. Age appears to be the most important determinant of total IGF-I levels in women. Anthropometric measures, such as body mass index (BMI) or waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) do not seem to influence total IGF-I concentrations in peripheral blood, but may modulate IGF-I bioavailability through insulin-dependent changes in IGFBP-1 and -2 concentrations. Age at menarche, phase of the menstrual cycle at blood draw, parity, menopause, past oral contraceptive or hormone replacement therapy use, and tobacco smoking do not appear to exert an independent effect on IGF-I and its binding proteins. There was some suggestion that regular physical activity may increase total IGF-I and that women with positive family history of breast cancer might have higher IGF-I levels than those without such diagnosis in their relatives.