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Can finger length predict your risk of disease?

Fergus Walsh | 00:00 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

I can guarantee that after reading this, if you are male, then you will examine the length of your fingers. Well, I did anyway. Why? Because a study in the British Journal of Cancer (Rahman_et_al.pdf) suggests that men whose index finger is longer than their ring finger were significantly less likely to develop prostate cancer.

I've done a brief report about it which is on the health pages.

This research needs several health warnings and caveats. Just because your index finger is longer than you ring finger, it does not mean that you are in the clear with regards to prostate cancer. In fact, in the study 347 men (22.8%) whose index finger was longer than their ring finger, had prostate cancer. But that compared to 936 (30.8%) of the healthy controls giving an odds ratio of 0.67. In plain terms it means those men whose index fingers were longer were a third less likely to have prostate cancer. And just because your ring finger is shorter, or the same length as your index finger, it does not mean you will get prostate cancer. Important that we clear that up at the start. Have you looked at your fingers yet?

Furthermore, since this appears to be the first study linking relative finger length to prostate cancer risk, it is absolutely crucial that the findings are repeated in other studies. The medical literature is littered with examples where apparently sound research findings are disproved upon later, broader analysis.

But if the findings are replicated, then it would provide an easy predictor of relative cancer risk.

Professor Ros Eeles from the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital is one of the report authors. She explained that the patients involved in the study were asked a whole load of questions about lifestyle and so on, and the team had decided to include one question about relative finger length. There were not expecting such a definite result.

"We were very surprised by the findings", she told me. "But there is a good biological explanation: we know that exposure to male or female hormones in utero determines how long your fingers are. We also know that prostate cancer is driven by testosterone levels later in life. Now we have a biologically plausible explanation for some of the early risk factors."

So can relative finger length predict your risk of any other diseases?

Professor Eeles said a previous study had found a link between exposure to hormones while in the womb and the development of osteoarthritis in men and women, again linked to having an index finger shorter than ring finger.

The research paper contains some comfort for men with comparatively long ring fingers in these terms: "In men, long ring fingers compared with index finger length reflect a more masculine profile, for example, more likely to father a child and a higher sex drive". Really? And what is the reference source for this claim? It is an article in the Daily Mail from 2000 (this reference was in the press version sent to me but is not in the final article attached above).

The newspaper article and this latest paper on prostate cancer risk make repeated mention of research by Professor John Manning at the University of Liverpool. There are suggestions of a link between finger length and heart disease, breast cancer, autism and even musical ability. But the study groups seem to involve very small numbers of people.

Professor Manning has also suggested an association between prenatal exposure to testosterone, the ratio of digit length and male homosexuality in a study of 176 men.
And there's another study about finger length and depression involving 102 people.

So that's osteoarthritis, heart disease, breast cancer, autism, musical ability, sexual preference and depression, not to mention sex drive, male fertility and now prostate cancer. Oh, and I forgot to mention, sporting ability, exam success, aggression and earning power. All from finger length?

The new hand pattern research in the British Journal of Cancer is interesting, not least because it involves a decent number of volunteers, but I sincerely hope it doesn't give men with short, stubby index fingers any sleepless nights chewing on their fingernails.

update 1 Dec 18:30

A few extra details. The trial asked men to look at their right hands, not their left. The researchers told me previous studies suggested the differences in digit ratio are more obvious in the the right hand - no-one has yet been able to give me a convincing reason why this should be. The Hox genes influence both finger length and the development of sex organs.

You are right to point out that this issue of digit ratio has been around a long time, but most previous studies have been small.

Another weakness of this research is that the men involved did not have their fingers measured, but instead looked at a diagram and "self-reported". The authors freely admit this is may lead to error but they felt it was unethical to x-ray them all.

I am grateful to Dr Lophatananon from Warwick Medical School for allowing me to include the diagram that was shown to all the men on the trial.

Finally Professor John Manning is now at Swansea University and drew my attention to a recent study on digit ratio and its possible relation to alcohol and tobacco consumption. The research is based on analysis of a large internet study conducted by the BBC in 2005.

Comments

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  • 1. At 08:30am on 01 Dec 2010, pj wrote:

    Is that left or right hand - mine are equal on my left hand and the ring finger is the longer on my right hand!

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  • 2. At 08:59am on 01 Dec 2010, Ian wrote:

    Same. My right index finger is noticeably shorter than my left...though I only noticed it after reading this article.

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  • 3. At 09:41am on 01 Dec 2010, zombiekilla wrote:

    nonsence!

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  • 4. At 10:26am on 01 Dec 2010, TomUtd wrote:

    Does this mean your less likely to get prostate cancer if you are susceptible to heart attacks? As per link below?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1613066.stm

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  • 5. At 10:41am on 01 Dec 2010, Neil wrote:

    What nonsense!

    In what medical universe are fingers connected to the prostate?

    This is on par with the medieval test that said if one had a mole on their body they were more likely to be a witch.

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  • 6. At 11:42am on 01 Dec 2010, adrian wrote:

    Neil,

    In answer to your question - the medical universe as described in the article. You should give it another read, it's pretty well laid out.

    Also, it's unlikely that the medieval test you refer to was based on a case-control study and regression analysis and probably didn't quote odds ratios for being a witch.

    Is your opinion of this story based on instinct or the evidence?

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  • 7. At 11:43am on 01 Dec 2010, Bina Cossar wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 8. At 11:46am on 01 Dec 2010, Michael Diver wrote:

    This is part of the same old chestnut that has been doing the rounds for the past decade.No one has measured the concentration of either total, free or bioavailable testosterone intra-utero.Testosterone is not easy to measure (I have many years experience of this).No account has been taken of binding proteins in utero.This is pseudo science.

    MJ Diver MSc, PhD.Formerly Senior Lecturer in Clinical Biochemistry, Royal Liverpool University Hospital

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  • 9. At 12:08pm on 01 Dec 2010, johnw wrote:

    I don't wear a ring. Does this report mean I will die? Or does it mean nothing whatsoever?

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  • 10. At 12:41pm on 01 Dec 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    This 'testosterone in the womb stuff' has been around for a while I think I recall hearing that the same finger test stuff has been said to be a 'test' for sexuality/transsexuality/gayness - is this any different?

    Isn't it far better to use family history and genetics as an indicator? If you are male, you are going to get prostate problems in super old age anyway, aren't you? Isn't it always a good thing to get tested out for the illnesses/diseases on your genetic ancestors anyway?

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  • 11. At 12:50pm on 01 Dec 2010, pete wrote:

    what people think they can prove with statistics is laughable. If I was to say you are 21.3% more likely to have a car crash if you watch East Enders & 19.8 less likely to have a crash if you watch Coronation street would you believe me?

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  • 12. At 1:06pm on 01 Dec 2010, mr beige wrote:

    If you lose your finger in an accident does this mean you're as good as dead?

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  • 13. At 1:08pm on 01 Dec 2010, Matt wrote:

    What about people without hands?

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  • 14. At 2:14pm on 01 Dec 2010, richvilleblaze wrote:

    Why is the emphasis always on men & men's health. It would be fair if the report also explained the affects on women more specifically....

    Are women with a shorter ring finger more prone to heart disease & breast cancer?

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  • 15. At 2:58pm on 01 Dec 2010, gmex wrote:

    Does it matter if I'm Mexican? we have notoriously long ring fingers.
    I don't want to die just because I'm Mexican.

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  • 16. At 4:08pm on 01 Dec 2010, drsphincter wrote:

    To comment 5 - Neil :

    My wife has a mole on her body. I'm afraid she may be a witch. Should I burn her or drown her in the village pond?

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  • 17. At 4:16pm on 01 Dec 2010, docrankin wrote:

    re PJ1500s comments, get your doctor to double check the left side of your prostate.

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  • 18. At 4:19pm on 01 Dec 2010, witness2gr8ness wrote:

    In this age of austerity when scientific funding is being cut in many areas it leaves me utterly flabbergasted that twaddle like this ends up getting published. Maybe index finger to ring finger ratio is linked to propensity to develop prostate cancer but the finger length observation is most likely and intermediate link not a direct link, go after the route cause please not some flashy headline grabbing nonsense.

    What about asking more pertinent questions like eating habits, level of exercise, alcohol and drug intake etc? If you think that looking at the length of your fingers are in any way a significant factor in determining your likelihood to develop prostate cancer or any other ailment for that matter you might as well go to a carnival and have your palm read but a quack in a gypsy tent.

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  • 19. At 02:11am on 02 Dec 2010, PinkLisa wrote:

    That is interesting. I wonder if this is really true.

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  • 20. At 07:52am on 02 Dec 2010, Megan wrote:

    The usual reliance on statistics rather than on hard science... medicine needs to get its head around doing some real research as to the causes of disease if it stands any chance of looking at prevention and cures, rather than just looking at risk factors.

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  • 21. At 08:08am on 02 Dec 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    medieval bananas! Obviously if there is a major irregularity of growth pattern, that might suggest other irregularities, but this looks like the a prediction system from the dark ages. Sounds like it has something to do with the EU and the regulation of banana shapes. Anyone for a spot of phrenology?

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  • 22. At 08:27am on 02 Dec 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    I am really worried that some people will freak out over this piece of information so I have come back with a few instructions.
    1) Place your hand flat down on the table in an unrelaxed pose. Note the fingers lengths.
    2) Place you hand flat down on the table in a more relaxed pose. Note the finger lengths.
    2) Place you hand flat down on the table and swing your fingers very slightly to the left and measure.
    4) Place your hand flat down on the table and swing your fingers very slightly to the right and measure.
    nuff said.

    Family history plus a genetic test for those who have a strong family trait of a particular problem might be more appropriate.

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  • 23. At 08:47am on 02 Dec 2010, Neil wrote:

    I'm so grateful to the BBC for adding the informative diagram of how to measure my finger lengths.

    I simply had no idea how to do this.

    What would we do without the Beeb?

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  • 24. At 09:01am on 02 Dec 2010, Neil wrote:

    Drsphincter

    EU laws and a move to greener thinking poses modern man with a problem in the disposal of witches.

    Burning your wife would release carbon into the atmoshphere and add to to global warming; drowning her in the village pond would pollute the water and probably be classed as fly tipping by your local council.

    Might be better to get her on your side and have her produce little dolls with the faces of politicians in which you can stick pins.

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  • 25. At 1:14pm on 02 Dec 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    Fergus, you are treading water here and there is no need to. There is real stuff is happening.

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  • 26. At 8:05pm on 02 Dec 2010, simondye wrote:

    Maybe this research is the cheapest and most effective answer to the prostate cancer postcode lottery- http://www.healthdirect.co.uk/2010/12/postcode-lottery-in-prostate-cancer-treatment.html

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  • 27. At 1:13pm on 03 Dec 2010, FatPeace - A Promise to Heather wrote:

    10. At 12:41pm on 01 Dec 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:
    This 'testosterone in the womb stuff' has been around for a while I think I recall hearing that the same finger test stuff has been said to be a 'test' for sexuality/transsexuality/gayness - is this any different?

    I remember this as the 'gay test' from school too - the cause of much bullying of those who happened to have the 'wrong' length fingers and just as scientifically flawed. Enough with the pseudoscience Beeb.


    20. At 07:52am on 02 Dec 2010, Megan wrote:
    The usual reliance on statistics rather than on hard science... medicine needs to get its head around doing some real research as to the causes of disease if it stands any chance of looking at prevention and cures, rather than just looking at risk factors.

    Agreed. But were that ever to come about there'd be no moral panic - sorry, epidemic - of so-called obesity and as a result half the country's researchers, doctors and 'concern' groups, not to mention large parts of the media, would be looking for alternative jobs.


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  • 28. At 7:09pm on 04 Dec 2010, GC wrote:

    There have been a few of these finger length studies now. Maybe it's the case that that it hints towards traits rather than explicitly means that they must be so. I have a feeling people see these studies and assume it means more than in actually does for any one individual.

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  • 29. At 09:37am on 05 Dec 2010, catwomanIII wrote:

    When I first read about this I thought it sounded like gobbledegook... However, I come form a family in whom 2D:4D ratio is small. We all have longer ring fingers. My father died of prostate cancer and we also have a family link of high functioning autism (the latter being associated with foetal testosterone exposure according to Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University). My ring finger is significantly longer than my index finger, I am a female with a 'male' brain (apparently), though heterosexual. Forget complicated medical techniques; let's just measure our fingers?

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  • 30. At 06:32am on 06 Dec 2010, atul45678910 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 31. At 10:09am on 27 Dec 2010, RamachandraWani wrote:

    This scientist has more confidence in figure if a body. Fingers play major role in our daily life. Ape who is our ancestor having no fingures of nails. Then Homo Sapien,Neadertheal man, Pecking man had some form of fingers. Also, Lady's fingers are more attractive than male ones. Threrefore, before looking at their finger's size their health must be studied so as to give history of patient. Today we are going to use fingers for keyboard or handset. Their function is to transact our businesss.Finger's carry everything each object. Neglecting their health we eat everything. Therefore germs enter in the stomach. We have to cleanse before taking meal. I found fingers very crucial now.

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