Is too much sun bad for you? Not always

People with non-melanoma skin cancer are less likely to have a heart attack, break a hip or die early, new research says.

There are benefits to soaking up the sunshine.Photo / Thinkstock
There are benefits to soaking up the sunshine.Photo / Thinkstock

Sun-lovers can take solace. The risk of you getting skin cancer may increase but you will be less likely to have heart disease or to die prematurely, an important new study reveals. Research based on more than four million people shows that men and women with non-melanoma skin cancer had nearly half the risk of an early death as people without the disease.

Those with skin cancer also had reduced risk of heart attacks and hip fracture, according to the study, reported in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The authors, from Copenhagen University Hospital, said that although the balance between positive and negative effects of sun exposure in the public debate currently leans towards the negative, the scientific evidence to back it is largely unclear.

Their study involved the entire Danish population aged over 40 years over a 23-year period. It involved 4.4 million men and women including 130,000 with non-melanoma skin cancer, 22,000 with cutaneous malignant melanoma, 330,856 with a heart attack, 130,000 with a hip fracture and 1.6 million people who died.

Results shows that people with non-melanoma skin cancer had a 4 per cent lower risk of suffering a heart attack, compared with people without cancer. They also had a 48 per cent lower risk of dying from any cause. Risk of hip fracture in people aged under 90 was also reduced.

Results were less positive for cutaneous malignant melanoma, a rarer but faster growing and more lethal cancer. In the study the researchers from Copenhagen University Hospital and other centres in Denmark looked for links between skin cancer diagnosis and risk of cardiovascular disease, hip fracture, and premature death.

"Our study suggests that having a diagnosis of skin cancer was associated with less myocardial infarction, less hip fracture in those below age 90 years and less death from any cause compared with general population controls," say the researchers.

Precisely why is uncertain but they suggest sun exposure and the beneficial effects of vitamin D may be implicated: "The data indirectly suggest that sun exposure for many people may have beneficial health effects, and therefore also question the widespread advice that sun exposure should avoided," say researchers.

Non-melanoma skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world.. Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to a group of cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin, compared with the less common type of skin cancer, melanoma, which spreads faster.

Curiously, the study also notes that sun exposure may actually "increase survival from malignant melanoma", suggesting that high levels of exposure might render the cancer more "biologically benign".

But despite the positive findings of the report, British experts urged caution. Dr Richard Warren, consultant dermatologist at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Manchester said: "The study omits individuals below the age of 40, and sadly many patients with melanoma develop the condition early in life. The authors have analysed the data in specific ways, and other methodology would give different results. The key message around skin cancer prevention remains use of sunscreens to prevent skin burning."

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