Better diet and more exercise ‘can cut cancer deaths by 60%’

Tens of thousands of cancers could be prevented each year if we looked after ourselves better. Bad diet, lack of exercise and drinking are behind up to 60 per cent of deaths from cancer, scientists have said in a study that does not even take into account the effect of smoking.

For the research, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, scientists collated the results of 12 previous studies into the effect of healthy lifestyles on cancer incidence and mortality.

Cumulatively the number of people involved in the research was more than a million and they were followed for between six and 17 years.

There was a drop of between 10 and 45 per cent in the number of cases found among people who adhered to diet and exercise guidelines, and a 14 to 61 per cent drop in cancer deaths.

With 160,000 deaths each year in the UK from cancer, that would equate to several tens of thousands of deaths that could be prevented if people exercised more, took alcohol in moderation and ate healthier diets including more fresh fruit and vegetables. The influence was stronger in some cancers than others. While between 19 and 60 per cent of breast cancers appeared to be avoidable, changing to a healthier lifestyle seemed to have no effect on prostate or ovarian cancer.

One study looked at the World Cancer Research Fund’s recommendations for prevention, which included 30 minutes’ exercise a day, breastfeeding for six months, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding relying on supplements. It found that for each of the changes made the risk of breast cancer fell by 11 per cent.

Lindsay Kohler, from the University of Arizona, said that it was important to remember that a healthier lifestyle would still not guarantee protection. “You may reduce your risk of getting or dying from cancer, though the risk is not totally eliminated,” she said. This is because other factors, whether genetic or environmental, come into play.

One of the problems with the study was that it found such a range of results, showing that the true proportion of cancers dependent on lifestyle was still far from clear. Dr Kohler estimated conservatively that one in five could be directly linked.

“Poor diet choices, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption and unhealthy body weight could account for more than 20 per cent of cancer cases, and could, therefore, be prevented with lifestyle modifications,” she said.

If you live and eat healthily
Breast cancer
19-60% drop in risk
Endometrial cancer in the lining of the womb 23-60% drop in risk
Colorectal cancer 27-52% drop in risk