The National Institutes of Health has determined that people who indulge heavily in meat and dairy fats are likely more to develop this deadly disease, which will strike more than 42,000 Americans this year and kill more than 35,000, according to the American Cancer Society.
Men and women who consumed large amounts of saturated fat were 36 percent more likely to suffer from pancreatic cancer, researchers reported online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
The study found that the link between fat intake and cancer was strongest for saturated fat from animal food sources, which were associated with a 43 percent increase in cancer risk.
To reach their conclusion, NIH researchers analyzed records of more than 500,000 people enrolled in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study.
Participants completed a food frequency questionnaire in 1995 and 1996 and were followed to track a variety of health issues, including pancreatic cancer.
Over an average follow-up of 6.3 years, 865 men and 472 women were diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic cancer.
Among the participants who consumed the highest amounts of total fats, the rate of cancer was 53 percent higher for men and 23 percent higher for women, compared to participants with the lowest fat diets.
Combining the data for men and women, the researchers found that total fat consumption was associated with 23 percent higher rates of pancreatic cancer, while high intake of monosaturated fats was associated with 22 percent higher cancer rates.
They theorized that the association between fat intake and pancreatic cancer could be related to the so-called exocrine function of the pancreas, which excretes enzymes such as those that help digest fat.
They also noted that studies have linked saturated fat to insulin resistance and that diabetes and insulin resistance have been associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk.
In an accompanying editorial, two prominent cancer researchers praised the NIH team, although they noted that more research would be necessary to definitively prove a direct link between fat intake and pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Brian Wolpin of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Dr. Meir Stampfer of the Harvard School of Public Health noted that pancreatic cancer kills 95 percent of its victims, and though it's far less common than many other types, it's the nation's fourth leading cause of cancer deaths.
Overall, they called on scientists "to push our research efforts in novel directions and provide hope for meaningful progress in this highly lethal disease."