Smoking may kill off the Y chromosome in men's blood cells, researchers led by Lars Fosberg and Jan P. Dumanski of Uppsala University  said — a finding that may explain why men are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses than women.

Fosberg and Dumanski found  that men who are missing the Y chromosome from their red blood cells have a higher risk of cancer. They're not sure why. For the latest study, published in Science, they looked at blood samples from about 6,000 men taking part in other health studies and looked at their blood samples and lifestyle factors including age, blood pressure, diabetes and drinking. The team underlined that the loss of Y chromosomes from blood cells occurred in 8.2% of elderly men in a sample of 1,153 and that those affected had life expectancies 5.5% shorter and three and half times the rate of cancer, after excluding haematological cancers.

The more the men smoked, the more likely they were to be missing the Y chromosome in blood cells. But men who had quit smoking seemed to get the Y chromosome back, they found.

"This discovery could be very persuasive for motivating smokers to quit," Lars Forsberg, a researcher at Sweden's Uppsala University who led the study, said in a statement.

The Y chromosome is of course the stretch of DNA that makes a man. Women have two X chromosomes; males have an X and a Y. But the Y chromosome controls more than the production of male hormones. It may affect how the body fights cancer, the Finnish team said.

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