How extremely cold climates freeze you to death

This is an article that I’ve been waiting my whole life to write — because even when I couldn’t prove it, deep down, I knew it to be true. And now — finally — I can justify my intense distaste for cold weather.

Yes, I’m all too aware of the fact that I live in New York City — obviously not the most tropical place in the world. But anyone who knows me can tell you that I avoid the cold as much as humanly possible. I would rather hibernate — or better yet, migrate.

And now I have a really good reason to complain… and the science to back me up.

A new study has shown that populations native to extremely cold and high-altitude areas have a greater genetic predisposition to cancer as they age. And this is especially true with respect to lung, breast, and colorectal cancer.

This conclusion comes courtesy of the GLOBOCAN-2012 survey, which estimated cancer incidence across the world. And it demonstrates that, while prolonged cold led to evolutionary adaptive changes to help populations to survive in harsh conditions, it also appears to have interfered with their bodies’ cancer-preventing mechanisms.

Findings like these are what makes writing these e-letters so enjoyable for me — because in the process of reporting the latest in health to you, I often learn something, too. And today, I learned about something called “antagonistic pleiotropy.”

It’s a cancer hypothesis with roots in genetic evolution. Basically, the idea is that people are more likely to end up with genes predisposing them to disease, despite the fact that those same genes also offer a survival benefit.

In other words, it’s an evolutionary catch-22.

In this case, cells’ ability to resist frigid temperatures and high altitudes also increases the likelihood of cancer development. Analysis revealed that specific populations contain tumor suppressor genes. Study results showed that reduced apoptosis (the natural, normal process of cell death) is common and beneficial within individuals living in very cold and high-altitude environments. However, this helpful adaptation is also created from mutations of the tumor protein p53 (a protein responsible for tumor suppression), thus predisposing them to a higher cancer risk. (And yes, I know I’m getting a little “science-y” here, but p53 is a very important tumor protein and one you should know about anyway.)

Results showed that the link between cancer and extremely cold environments was most pronounced in Native Americans. (In this population, there were particularly significant associations with colorectal cancer.)

Similarly, Siberian Eskimos carried the most significant genetic links to colorectal, esophageal, lung, head and neck, breast, bladder, and blood cancers, as well as lymphoma.

Meanwhile, genetic mutations were most common among Greenland Inuits. And Tibetans and Andeans were found to have an equally staggering list of genetic links to cancer — running the gamut from squamous cell carcinoma to prostate cancer.

All exaggeration aside, I do realize that New York lies in a temperate climate zone by comparison. (Though it certainly doesn’t feel very temperate to me right now!) But the data collected from this survey still have potentially wide-reaching implications.

For one thing, it helps to explain why cancer and mortality rates are so much higher in certain geographic areas as compared to others. But it could also change the way doctors and scientists consider cancer’s origins. (As it stands, few consider genetic predisposition to be a significant factor, save for a few instances, like colorectal and breast cancer.)

It’s long overdue that we finally turn over every rock in this fight — because our current cut-burn-poison approach to addressing this dreaded disease is nothing short of barbaric. And to make matters worse, it’s not even particularly effective either.

With that, all I can say is… Miami, here I come.