Lycopene and Women's Health
There is evidence that the intake of lycopene may positively impact chronic health concerns that are important to women. These include breast cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, cardiovascular disease, and vision.
In the United States, women who live to be 90 have a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer, with 205,000 cases expected in 2002 (1). While some studies have found no significant association between dietary lycopene intake and breast cancer, others have found a positive relationship between lycopene in breast tissue and breast cancer risk (2). In cell cultures, lycopene has been found to inhibit breast cancer tumors more efficiently, when compared to alpha and beta-carotene (3). In a case-control study conducted between 1993 and 1999 which examined the relationship between 17 micronutrients and breast cancer risk, lycopene was significantly inversely associated with breast cancer risk. The study reviewed the diets of 289 Swiss women with confirmed breast cancer and 442 controls. Median intake of lycopene in the "high intake" group was 6229 g/day (4). In a study published in 1998, samples taken from The Breast Cancer Serum Bank in Columbia, Missouri were analyzed to evaluate the relationship of levels of carotenoids (including lycopene), selenium and retinol with breast cancer. Only lycopene was found to be associated with a reduced risk for developing breast cancer (5).
Intake of dietary lycopene may also play a role in the prevention of ovarian and cervical cancers. An estimated 23,300 cases of ovarian cancer and 13,000 cases of cervical cancer are expected in the U.S. in 2002 (1). From a population-based study of 549 cases of ovarian cancer and 516 controls, researchers estimated consumption of several antioxidant vitamins and carotenoids including lycopene. Intake of lycopene was significantly and inversely associated with risk for ovarian cancer, predominately in postmenopausal women. The foods most strongly associated with a decreased risk for ovarian cancer were raw carrots and tomato sauce (6). In a study involving 147 confirmed cervical cancer patients and 191 non-cancerous subjects (7), only lycopene was found to be significantly lower in cancerous patients. In another study of non-Hispanic, black women, those women with higher levels of lycopene in the blood were found to have a decreased risk (by 33%) of developing cervical cancer (8).
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association (9), over 32 million American women have one or more types of cardiovascular disease. Studies have indicated that consuming tomatoes and tomato products containing lycopene reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. Lycopene intake has also been found to be associated with a lower risk of myocardial infarction (10). In a study of participants from 10 European countries, it was found that consumption of lycopene in fruits and vegetables might reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease (11). In a recent report from the 2002 American College of Cardiology annual meeting, blood samples from nearly 500 women participating in the Women's Health Study were analyzed. Researchers found that women with the highest levels of plasma lycopene had a 33 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease than those with the lowest blood levels (12).
Maintaining healthy vision as people age is an important factor in maintaining their independence. According to the National Eye Institute, over half of all Americans age 65 and older are afflicted with cataracts (13). In one cross-sectional survey of 372 women and women aged 66 to 75 years in Sheffield, England, the risk of cortical cataract was lowest in participants with the highest plasma concentrations of lycopene. The researchers noted the findings suggest that a diet rich in carotenoids may protect against cataract development. This conclusion was based on observational data. Human, randomized controlled trials should be conducted to verify the results (14).
Antioxidants have been suggested to play a role in preeclampsia. In one study, placental tissue, maternal serum, and umbilical cord venous blood levels of four dietary carotenoids (including lycopene) were compared in 22 normal pregnant women and 19 women with preeclampsia. Levels of beta-carotene, canthaxanthin, and lycopene in placentas in preeclamptic women were lower than from those with a normal pregnancy, as were beta-carotene and lycopene levels of maternal serum. These findings suggest that oxidative stress or dietary antioxidants may affect preeclampsia (15).
Lycopene may also improve longevity in women. In a study examining plasma lycopene and longevity in nuns, lycopene and other carotenoids were measured in 94 participants, ages 77 to 99 years, living in the same convent. After six years of follow-up, only 13% of those with low plasma lycopene were still alive, while 48% of those with moderate lycopene and 70% of those with high lycopene were living (P=0.0001). Life table analyses indicated an 11-year difference in life expectancy between those with low and high plasma lycopene (16).
In conclusion, lycopene, as an antioxidant, reduces oxidative stress. It may play an important role in many health concerns for women. These include breast cancer, cervical cancer, cardiovascular disease, and preeclampsia. In addition, serum lycopene levels in women also appear to be positively correlated with longevity. It is therefore advisable for women to regularly include a food source of lycopene in their diets.