About half of US cancer deaths and a large proportion of cancer cases could be prevented if people were active, a healthy weight, avoid heavy drinking and adopt other healthy lifestyle habits, according to a new study published in JAMA Oncology.
The study from Harvard University reinforces much of what AICR research shows: what people eat, how much we move and other lifestyle habits make a difference for cancer risk. Here in the US, AICR estimates that
healthy eating, staying lean, and being active can prevent almost a third of the most common cancers.
“We welcome this study, which strongly supports what AICR has been saying for years: everyday lifestyle choices play a huge role in cancer risk.” says AICR Vice-President for Research Susan Higginbotham, PhD, RD. “This has been demonstrated repeatedly in reports from our Continuous Update Project, which systematically reviews and analyzes thousands of studies involving millions of people around the globe.”
Healthy Criteria for Low Risk
This new study analyzed data from 136,000 white participants of two study groups. All the individuals had been reporting their weight, diet, exercise and other habits for decades. The researchers separated participants into two groups: those who followed a healthy lifestyle pattern (low-risk) and those who did not (high-risk).
When comparing the low- and high-risk groups, the researchers calculated about 20 to 40 percent of cancer cases and about half of cancer deaths could be prevented if people were to adopt the healthy lifestyle pattern of the low-risk group.
For individual cancers, colorectal cancers could be prevented by 29 percent of women and 20 percent of men. Over 60 percent of esophageal cancers could be prevented. Lung cancer was the most preventable, with approximately 80 percent of these cancers avoidable.
The people in these studies were nurses and health professionals. The percent of preventable cancers was even more dramatic – ranging from 41 to 63 percent –when the researchers compared the low-risk group to the broader US population of white people.
From Data into Everyday Action
Although diet was not a specific criterion in this study, the low-risk group ate healthier than the high-risk group.
“This study reinforces our message that what you eat and how much you move make a big difference for your cancer risk,” said AICR Head of Nutrition Alice Bender, MS, RDN. “For example, choose whole grain bread for your sandwich and dish up a healthy portion of vegetables at dinner – these are cancer-protective plant foods that can also help you be a healthy weight. Add a brisk walk to your daily routine and find ways to sneak in activity throughout the day. These steps add up to powerful protection.”
In an accompanying editorial, Graham A. Colditz, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Siobhan Sutcliffe, Ph.D., of Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis stress the urgency of taking action: “As a society, we need to avoid procrastination induced by thoughts that chance drives all cancer risk or that new medical discoveries are needed to make major gains against cancer, and instead we must embrace the opportunity to reduce our collective cancer toll by implementing effective prevention strategies and changing the way we live,” they write.
“We agree strongly with what Dr. Graham Colditz makes clear in the editorial accompanying this new study: ‘Our challenge now is to act on this knowledge,’” said Higginbotham.
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