Key to cancer prevention may be keeping your heart healthy

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If you want to avoid cancer, a new study suggests your heart is a prime place to start.

New research finds that people who follow the American Heart Association's "Life's Simple 7" steps to lower their risk for heart disease get an added bonus of protection against cancer. The more steps you follow, the better the risk reduction, according to the study.

"This can help health professionals provide a clear, consistent message about the most important things people can do to protect their health and lower their overall risk for chronic diseases," study author Dr. Laura J. Rasmussen-Torvik, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, urged doctors in a statement.

Just what are the "Simple 7" tips to stave off heart disease?

  • Being active: If adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day -- like brisk walking -- five times per week, they can lower risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes, says AHA.
  • Keeping a healthy weight: Too much fat - especially around the waist, known as visceral fat - raises risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. About one-third of U.S. adults are obese.
  • Eating a healthy diet: A diet low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars along with a diet high in whole grain fiber, lean proteins and colorful fruits and vegetables could dramatically boost health, AHA says.
  • Maintaining cholesterol: When you have too much "bad" LDL cholesterol, plaque can form in veins and arteries that cause heart attacks, strokes.
  • Keeping blood pressure down: The AHA says high blood pressure -- or hypertension -- is the "single most significant risk factor for heart disease." Hypertension also puts strain on the kidneys.
  • Regulating blood sugar levels: Diabetes can cause blood sugar to rise to dangerous levels, damaging the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves over time.
  • Not smoking: Smoking damages the entire circulatory system, says AHA, increasing risk for coronary heart disease, hardened arteries, aneurysm and blood clots.

For the new study, published March 18 in the AHA's journal Circulation, researchers tracked more than 13,000 white and black Americans enrolled in a long-running study of atherosclerosis risk that kicked off in 1987. Participants were interviewed at the study's start to gauge their health habits, and about 20 years later, researchers looked at cancer registries and hospitals to determine that more than 2,800 of the participants had developed cancer. Lung, colon, rectum, prostate and breast cancers were most common.

The researchers found that those who followed six or seven of the AHA's tips reduced their risk for cancer by 51 percent, compared to participants who followed zero of the health tips. Meeting four factors led to a 33 percent risk reduction, but even following one or two was tied to a 21 percent drop in cancer risk.

When the researchers removed smoking from their analysis, which is often flagged as a major risk factor for cancer or heart disease, the researchers found participants who followed five or six of the remaining health tips had a 25 percent lower risk of having cancer compared to those who followed none.

"Quitting smoking is very important, but there are other factors you need to be aware of if you want to live a healthy life," Rasmussen-Torvik said.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, told HealthDay that past studies have suggested eating one way to avoid heart disease, another to avoid diabetes and another to prevent cancer.

"This never made sense," said Katz, who was not involved in the research. "Take good care of your body by exercising it, feeding it well and sparing it exposures to such toxins as tobacco, and it is far more likely to take good care of you, sparing you heart disease and cancer, not to mention other chronic diseases."

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