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January 24, 2018 | 3 minute read

Study: Five Healthy Habits Lower Cancer Risk

A recent study in the U.K. found that people who followed five aspects of a healthy lifestyle were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than those who did not. Overall risk of cancer was reduced by about one-third in people who were non-smokers, had a healthy weight, were physically active, ate a healthy diet and limited alcohol within the national guidelines.

These results are similar to AICR research which shows that in the US about one in three of the most common cancers could be prevented if everyone were at a healthy weight, maintained physical activity and ate a healthy diet.

For this study, data were collected from over 340,000 participants in the UK Biobank, a prospective study of about half a million people. In a follow-up after five years (median), 14, 285 participants who were diagnosed with cancer, were quizzed on their lifestyle habits. Participants who met all five of the healthy living factors were 32% less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than those who satisfied only one or none. The addition of each healthy behavior was associated with an 8% reduction in cancer risk.

“Even small changes in lifestyle can change your cancer risk and adopting healthy behaviors will reduce your risk of other common chronic diseases too,” says Dr. Nigel Brockton, Director of Research at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The researchers report a 25 percent reduction in colorectal cancer and a 35 percent reduction in breast cancer which are in line with other published data. AICR/WCRF CUP reports show that lifestyle plays a central role in reducing risk for both of these cancers. Weight, physical activity, alcohol and diet all link to colorectal cancer risk, and alcohol, weight and physical activity link to postmenopausal breast cancer.

But the data linking healthy living and prostate cancer was contrary to the authors’ expectations, showing an increased risk for those with healthy behaviors. One likely explanation for this unexpected result, the researchers say, is that people with healthy behaviors care about health, and get prostate cancer screenings done more often.

Along with large reductions in cancer risk and cancer mortality, researchers also found reductions in diabetes, vascular disease, and dementia, thereby showing large health benefits from healthy behaviors.

The strengths of this study are the size of the cohort and the prospective collection of data.  The main limitations are the low response rate to the UK Biobank, and the relatively broad dichotomization of behaviors into “healthy” and “not healthy.” Researchers did not look at diet beyond fruit and vegetable intake and smoking did not take into account former smokers. However, these results are consistent with other large population studies that have used more sophisticated data collection. The results are also consistent with AICR/WCRF recommendations and conclusions from AICR/WCRF Continuous Update Project reports.

If making wholesale changes to your lifestyle is overwhelming, the authors suggest that taking up one additional healthy behavior may be a more acceptable message.  The authors also emphasize that clinicians should “make every contact count” to reinforce the importance of adopting health behaviors to reduce chronic disease risk.

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