Healthy lifestyle may reduce women's risk of developing cancer

July 07, 2004

Post-menopausal women who follow recommended dietary and lifestyle guidelines may reduce their risk of developing and dying from cancer, with those in highest compliance experiencing the best outcomes.

Conversely, those women who followed one or none of nine recommended guidelines for diet and lifestyle had a 35 percent higher risk of developing cancer and a 42 percent greater risk of dying from cancer than women who adhered to at least six of the recommendations considered for the study.

The study, published in the July issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, examined data collected from 29,564 women, aged 55 to 69 upon entry into the study, who were followed over a 13-year period to determine the impact of dietary lifestyle factors on the incidence and death rate from cancer.

"Our study suggests that older women may be able to have a fairly large impact on their cancer risk by not smoking, controlling body weight, exercising and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Besides having an impact for individuals, following these recommendations would also have a large impact on reducing cancer in our communities as a whole" said James R. Cerhan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn. Other scientists participating in the study were affiliated with the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn., the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, Kaiser Permanante, Oakland, Calif, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Wash., as well as Dr. Cerhan's colleagues at the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Cerhan's team considered nine recommendations developed by the American Institute for Cancer Research, and evaluated women's cancer risk and other health outcomes based on how many of those categories the women followed as part of their normal lifestyle.

Those recommendations included having maximum body mass index less than 25 kg/m2; having gained no more than 11 pounds since age 18; engaging in daily moderate and weekly vigorous physical activity; eating of 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruit daily; consuming more than 400 grams (about 14 ounces) of complex carbohydrate per day; limiting alcohol intake to less than 14 grams per day (one drink); limiting red meat consumption to less than 80 grams per day (about 3 ounces); limiting daily consumption of fat to no more than 30 percent of total caloric intake; and limiting use of sodium to less than 2,400 milligrams per day. Furthermore, the researchers considered whether the women in the study ever smoked cigarettes.

When considering the impact of never smoking and following these recommendations combined on the risk of developing or dying from cancer, the researchers projected that 31 percent of the cancer incidence and 30 percent of the cancer mortality theoretically could have been delayed or prevented in this population. They noted that the study participants, who were predominantly from Iowa, had lower smoking rates than the US average. Even those who never smoked experienced a lower cancer risk if they followed these recommendations.

It is estimated that one in three women in the United States will develop cancer during her lifetime, Dr. Cerhan noted. During 2003, about 658,800 women were diagnosed with cancer, not including non-melanoma skin cancers. Cancer was the second leading cause of death in women during 2000, and the leading cause of death among women between 40 and 79 years.

Dr. Cerhan noted that the study examined the self-reported dietary and lifestyle habits of women, but did not evaluate the effect that changes to improved, recommended diets would have on the risk of cancer incidence and mortality, which would need to be tested in a randomized clinical trial.

American Association for Cancer Research

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