Looking after heart health reduces cancer risk, too

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By DR. GRAHAM A. COLDITZ
Siteman Cancer Center

The month of Valentine’s Day, February is also American Heart Month – both highlighting matters of the heart.

And while Heart Month might arrive with fewer candies and flowers than Valentine’s Day, it doesn’t lack for importance when it comes to overall health.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the U.S., causing nearly 700,000 deaths each year. More positively, there are ways to reduce your risk, and your family’s. Eighty percent or more of heart disease cases could be avoided with healthy lifestyle changes and preventive health care. And most steps may already be familiar, including making healthy food choices and being more physically active.

On top of these heart-health benefits, such steps also have the added bonus of lowering the risk of cancer, which is a close second to heart disease in overall impact.

Fifty percent of all cancers could be prevented with healthy behaviors. And 50 percent or more of breast cancers — and up to 75 percent of colon cancers — could be avoided.

Steps that can lower the risk of both heart disease and cancer include:

  • Being tobacco-free – or getting tobacco-free. Visit smokefree.gov for help.
  • Keeping weight in check.
  • Being physically active. Any amount of activity is better than none.
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in red and processed meat.
  • Limiting alcohol. Not drinking is best.
  • Getting screening tests for certain cancers and heart disease risk factors. Talk with a doctor about which apply to you.

As important as these healthy behaviors are, it can still take some effort to put them in place, and making a plan can improve our chances of making it happen.

“Choosing a behavior that can be integrated into everyday life is key,” said Erika Waters, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who specializes in behavior change research. “Then, make a small goal for change.”

This approach helps set the stage for success that we can then build on. Being detailed about a goal helps even more.

“Specify what, when, where and for how long,” added Waters.

One common goal for many of us is to get more physical activity, and Waters outlined an example of using this approach to help do that. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves, and some potential answers:

  • What will I do? Take a walk.
  • When will I do it? Right when I get home from work.
  • Where will I do it? Down to the corner and back.
  • How long will I do it? For just 10 minutes.

It may feel unfamiliar to have such a specific plan for something like a short walk. But having a realistic goal and plan for reaching that goal can really help us be successful in making healthy changes and maintaining them over time. Every positive change we make, however big or small, can have benefits — and can build on each other.

American Heart Month, and the healthy behaviors it focuses on, is a great way to think about steps we can take to lower our risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.

“Changing behavior isn’t always easy,” Waters concluded. “But having better health and well-being will make it worthwhile!”

It’s your health. Take control.

For more ways to improve overall health, visit 8ways.wustl.edu.

(Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool YourDiseaseRisk.com.)


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