Risk factors for leukemia

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science.

This page was updated on May 26, 2022.

Each year, more than 60,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia. The risk of developing leukemia increases with age, but the disease may also develop in people under 20 years old.

What causes leukemia?

Leukemia develops when the DNA in blood cells called leukocytes mutate or change, disabling their ability to control growth and division. In some cases, these mutated cells escape the immune system and grow out of control, crowding out healthy cells in the bloodstream.

While you may never know how you got leukemia, since its exact cause is often not known, certain risk factors are linked to the disease, including exposure to radiation. Known risk factors for leukemia include:

General risk factors that may cause leukemia

Gender: Men are more likely than woman to develop leukemia.

Age: The risk of most leukemias increase with age. The median age of a patient diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is 65 years and older. However, most cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) occur in people under 20 years old. The median age of an ALL patient at diagnosis is 15.

Blood disorders: Certain blood disorders, including chronic myeloproliferative disorders such as polycythemia vera, idiopathic myelofibrosis and essential thrombocythemia increase the chances of developing AML.

Family history: Many wonder, Is leukemia hereditary? Most leukemias have no familial link. However, if you are a first-degree relative of a CLL patient, or if you have an identical twin who has or had AML or ALL, you may be at an increased risk for developing the disease.

Congenital syndromes: Some congenital syndromes including Down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia and Blackfan-Diamond syndrome seem to raise the risk of AML.

Lifestyle risk factors

Smoking: Although smoking may not be a direct cause of leukemia, smoking cigarettes does increase the risk of developing AML.

Other conditions 

Radiation: Exposure to high-energy radiation (e.g., atomic bomb explosions) and intense exposure to low-energy radiation from electromagnetic fields (e.g., power lines).

Chemicals: Long-term exposure to certain pesticides or industrial chemicals like benzene is considered a risk for leukemia.

Electromagnetic fields: Prolonged exposure, such as living near power lines, may increase a person’s risk for developing ALL.

Previous cancer therapy: Certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for other cancers are considered leukemia risk factors.

Can you prevent leukemia?

There is no confirmed way to prevent leukemia. Still, it may be possible to help reduce your risk for this type of cancer by making certain lifestyle changes and following healthy habits, including:

  • Don’t smoke. Seek help to quit if you currently smoke. There are lots of free cessation programs available online or in your community. Keep trying and find what works for you.
  • Keep a healthy body weight. Lose weight if needed. Ask your doctor for advice on how to start a healthy weight loss program.
  • Avoid or lower exposure to chemicals that may raise your risk for leukemia, such as benzene and formaldehyde.
  • Lower your exposure to pesticides.
  • Stay physically active and follow a healthy diet. Both these lifestyle elements have been proven to reduce cancer risk in general.

Next topic: What are the symptoms of leukemia?

Expert cancer care

is one call away.
appointments in as little as 24 hrs.