Leukemia--Acute Myeloid (Myelogenous) Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

What are the risk factors for acute myeloid leukemia?

A risk factor is something that affects a person's chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be controlled. Others, like a person's age, can't be changed. But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may not have any known risk factors. Even if a person has a risk factor and gets cancer, it is often very hard to know how much that risk factor may have contributed to the cancer.

Risk factors for acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

There are a few known risk factors for AML.


Smoking is a proven risk factor for AML. Many people know that smoking is linked to cancers of the lungs, mouth, and throat. But few know that it can also affect cells that do not come into direct contact with smoke. Cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke get into the bloodstream and spread to many parts of the body.


Exposure to certain chemicals has been linked to acute leukemia. For instance, long-term exposure to high levels of benzene is a risk factor for AML. Benzene is a solvent used in cleaning. It is also used to produce drugs, plastics, dyes, gasoline, and other goods.

Cancer treatment

Patients with other cancers who are treated with certain chemotherapy drugs are more likely to develop AML. Using these drugs along with radiation treatment further increases the risk.


Exposure to a high dose of radiation is a risk factor for AML. People who survived the atomic bomb in Japan had a greatly increased risk of getting acute leukemia, most within 6 to 8 years.

There may also be an increased risk of leukemia from lower levels of radiation, such as from radiation treatment, x-rays, or CT scans. It is not clear how much the increase might be, but to be safe, most doctors try to limit a person's exposure to radiation as much as possible.

Certain blood problems

Patients with certain blood problems such as polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia, idiopathic myelofibrosis, and myelodysplastic syndrome seem to be at a higher risk for getting AML. Some people with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML -- another type of leukemia) later develop a form of AML. The risk of getting AML can be higher for some of these blood problems if treatment includes some types of chemotherapy or radiation.

Congenital (present at birth) syndromes

For the most part, AML does not appear to be an inherited disease. It is rare for it to run in families, so a person's risk is not usually increased if a family member has the disease. But there are some syndromes with genetic changes that seem to raise the risk of AML. These include:

  • Down syndrome
  • Trisomy 8
  • Fanconi anemia
  • Bloom syndrome
  • Ataxia-telangiectasia
  • Blackfan-Diamond syndrome
  • Schwachman syndrome
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Neurofibromatosis I
  • Severe congenital neutropenia (also called Kostmann syndrome)

Family history

Although most cases of AML are not thought to have a strong genetic link, having a close relative (such as a parent or sibling) with AML increases your risk of getting the disease.

Someone who has an identical twin who had AML before the age of one year has a very strong risk of also getting AML.


AML is more common in males than in females. The reasons for this are not clear.

Last Medical Review: 06/27/2013
Last Revised: 02/07/2014