Following common-sense habits of a healthy lifestyle — like avoiding smoking and heavy drinking, maintaining a proper weight and getting regular exercise — could cut cancer rates significantly, according to the results of a study published late last month in JAMA Oncology, the professional magazine of the American Medical Association.
The researchers, based in Boston, studied more than 130,000 people to see how modest behavior changes could impact the rate of all cancers except those impacting the skin, brain, blood, or lymphatic systems, and nonfatal prostate malignancies.
In fact, nearly half of all cancers in the United States could be prevented if all Americans undertook a few basic changes related to smoking, drinking, weight, control and physical activity, according to an analysis by the healthcare consultant The Advisory Board. The results do not suggest the need for drastic changes in diet, exercise, and daily habits, experts said, but indicate that avoiding unhealthy behaviors can have a huge impact on our likelihood to develop cancer.
Dr. Pallav Mehta, Director of Integrative Oncology at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper in Camden was impressed by the magnitude of the benefits identified in the study. “This showed a significant reduction in multiple cancers,” he said. “In this business we’re willing to take a 5 to 10 percent benefit and run with it,” Mehta continued, “so when you see numbers like this, it almost seems like showing off.”
Other research, including a study published in Science magazine in January, found cancer risk is tied to the rate of cell mutations, suggesting some patients are essentially genetically “unlucky” when it comes to carcinoma. But experts said the latest findings confirm what we have long known: That some habits and environmental factors, like the presence of cigarette smoke, can have a huge impact on cancer rates at large.
“You can really apply this to the real world,” said Mehta, who runs a unique program to help breast-cancer survivors live a healthy lifestyle and avoid a resurgence of the disease. “It really validates a lot of what we do,” he said. The take-away is simple, Mehta added: “If you live reasonably well, look at the benefits you can get out of it.”
The findings result from a review by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health of data on some 130,000 patients who were part of other ongoing health and lifestyle studies of health professionals. It included only white patients, which experts said does present some limitations on the data.
Patients were divided into low-risk and high-risk groups. Low-risk participants were not current smokers, had only one drink a day (women), or two (men), had a body-mass index between 18.5 and 27.5, and excised between 75 and 150 minutes a week; high-risk patients were the rest. According to the federal Centers for Disease and Control, the average adult in the United States has a BMI — a ratio of height to weight that indicates fat levels — of about 26.5; a range of 25 to 29 is considered overweight and 30 and above is classified as obese.
Among woman, a healthy lifestyle could lead to 41 percent decline in the incidence of cancer overall and a 59 percent drop in the death rate; for men, cancer rates could decline 63 percent and deaths by 67 percent, the Advisory Board noted. For some tumors, the impact is even more pronounced: Healthy behaviors can cut lung cancer risk by 85 percent in woman, while men could cut bladder cancer risk by 62 percent and prostate cancer risk by 40 percent.