Healthy Lifestyle Can Lower Cancer Risk

Risk Decreases as Number of Healthful Habits Increase

From the WebMD Archives

July 7, 2004 -- If the often-advised words were enough to convince you that a healthy lifestyle can better translate to a healthy life, a new study provides mathematical proof -- at least when it comes to gauging cancer risk.

And the bottom line should come as no surprise: Cancer risk goes down as the number of healthful habits goes up.

A team of researchers tracked nearly 30,000 post-menopausal women for 13 years, measuring the impact their diet and other commonly advised lifestyle guidelines had on their rates of developing and dying from cancer.

"Our study found that women who followed only one or none of the nine recommended diet and lifestyle guidelines developed by the American Institute for Cancer Research had a 35% higher risk of developing cancer than women who practiced at least six of the recommendations," says researcher James Cerhan, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic's Cancer Center.

These sporadic adherers were also 42% more likely to die from all types of cancer than those following most of the guidelines.

Advice to Live By

The nine guidelines to better ensure a cancer-free life are:

  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding excess weight and limiting adult weight gain to no more than 11 pounds from age 18 (they recommend having a maximum BMI (a measure of body fat) of less than 25)
  • Getting daily moderate exercise and a vigorous workout at least once a week
  • Eating at least five servings of vegetables and fruits each day
  • Eating at least 14 ounces -- about seven portions -- of whole grains, cereals, and other complex carbohydrates each day, while limiting processed foods and refined sugar
  • Limiting alcohol to one drink a day (for women)
  • Limiting red meat to no more than 3 ounces daily
  • Limiting intake of fatty food, particularly those of animal origin, to no more than 30% of total calories
  • Limiting intake of salted foods and use of salt in cooking to less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium daily

"Furthermore, we estimate that if all the women in the study group had never smoked and followed a majority of the guidelines, approximately 30% of new cancers and cancer deaths could have been prevented or delayed," explains Cerhan.

Although only women between age 55 and 69 when the study began were tracked, the researchers say their findings -- published in the July issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention -- would probably translate to men and possibly other age groups.

In essence, this research confirms what has long been believed: The risk of cancer, as well as other diseases, can be greatly reduced by following the four cornerstones of healthy living: not smoking, controlling body weight, exercising, and eating a healthy balanced diet.

Tobacco Is Most Dangerous

"This may seem obvious, but a study like this is useful because debate still exists on the relative importance of different things," says Michael J. Thun, MD, of the American Cancer Society.

"For reducing cancer among the whole population, avoiding tobacco in any form is still the lead horse," Thun tells WebMD. "But close on its heels is maintaining a healthy body weight and getting regular physical activity. In terms of preventing cancer, you shouldn't need to choose between smoking and obesity -- both are huge contributors to cancer and other diseases."

Cerhan's study is timely in that the American Cancer Society has recently joined forces with the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association to launch a collective effort to stress the importance of following these guidelines to reduce risk of all these diseases.

"This study represents one piece of an ongoing body of research that is trying to identify which aspects of behavior are most important to health, and all three of these organizations want to improve the application of numerous preventative measures we know are effective," Thun says. "People shouldn't feel they need to choose between smoking and obesity -- both are huge contributors to cancer and other diseases."

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SOURCES: Cerhan, J, Cancer Epidemiology, Boiomarkers and Prevention, July 2004; vol 13: pp 1114-1120. James R. Cerhan, MD, PhD, associate professor, epidemiology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn. Michael J. Thun, MD, vice president, epidemiology and surveillance research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.
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