Can having a heart healthy lifestyle reduce cancer?

  • New research has found that a heart-healthy lifestyle will not only lower your risk of heart disease but could also cut your chances of developing cancer.
  • Risk factors that cause cardiovascular disease could also lead to cancer.
  • Healthy habits used to prevent heart disease could also be helpful in reducing a person’s risk of developing cancer.

Cancer ranks as a leading cause of death and an important barrier to increasing life expectancy in every country of the world.1 According to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019,2 cancer is the first or second leading cause of death before the age of 70 years in 112 of 183 countries and ranks third or fourth in a further 23 countries.

Cancer's rising prominence as a leading cause of death partly reflects marked declines in mortality rates of stroke and coronary heart disease, relative to cancer, in many countries. 1 9.7 million people are estimated to have died from the various forms of cancer. Every sixth death in the world is due to cancer, making it the second leading cause of death – second only to cardiovascular diseases. Progress against many other causes of deaths and demographic drivers of increasing population size, life expectancy and — particularly in higher-income countries — aging populations mean that the total number of cancer deaths continues to increase. This is a very personal topic to many: nearly everyone knows or has lost someone dear to them from this collection of diseases.

New research suggests that following a heart-healthy lifestyle can not only lower the risk of heart disease but may also cut chances of developing cancer.

The study, published in the March 2021 issue of JACC: CardioOncology, found that cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk — including traditional risk factors like age, sex, and smoking, along with natriuretic peptide levels — is associated with an increased risk of cancer.

The findings suggest the risk factors that cause CVD could also lead to cancer.

Therefore, the healthy habits used to combat CVD could also be helpful in reducing a person’s risk of developing cancer.

“A healthy diet and making sure other medical issues, like hypertension and diabetes, are controlled is important for many reasons, and it turns out that cancer risk is one of them,” says Dr. Collin Vu, a medical oncologist and hematologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and other centers in the United States and the Netherlands evaluated health data from 20,305 people who did not have cancer when they enrolled in the study.

Over 15 years, 2,548 people developed cancer. The researchers found that traditional CVD risk factors — age, sex, and smoking status — were independently associated with cancer.

They also found that higher levels of natriuretic peptides — markers that indicate stress on the heart — also predicted higher risks of cancer.

Study participants with the most natriuretic peptides had a 40 percent greater chance of developing cancer.

Participants who adhered to heart-healthy lifestyle behaviors — managing blood pressure, stress levels, cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight and diet — had a lower risk of developing cancer.

"This seems to say that the heart disease does not in itself contribute to the development of cancer but that the same risks or behaviors that make a person more likely to have heart disease are also more likely to cause cancer," says Vu.

"The link between cardiovascular heart disease and cancer may not be much of a direct link at all but may be that we have traits or behaviors that seem to lead to both at the same time," Vu added.

Inflammation is at the root of both conditions

Dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao, the director of clinical cardiology at Yale Medicine and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine, says inflammation is at the root of both CVD and cancer.

ResearchTrusted Source has found a link between inflammation and colorectal cancer. Furthermore, chronic inflammation caused by obesity and cigarette use — two risk factors for CVD — “can increase cancer risk and stimulate cells to mutate or cause cancers to progress,” says Oen-Hsiao .

A crucial component of a heart-healthy lifestyle is eating a low-cholesterol diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Oen-Hsiao says fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients that help fight inflammation.

"In general, if there is a lot of inflammation in the body, this reduces the ability of the body to fight disease, including cancers," says Oen-Hsiao.

Managing a healthy lifestyle

The study found that people with CVD tend to have worse outcomes if they get cancer.

People with CVD may have issues with sleep or live a sedentary lifestyle, putting them at increased risk for these cancer outcomes, explains Oen-Hsiao.

Oen-Hsiao recommends eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep to manage stressors in your life.

If someone smokes, quitting might be the most heart-healthy change they can make to cut their risk of cancer, according to Vu.

Changes in behaviors today can make a difference for us later in life.

"By following a heart-healthy lifestyle to reduce our risk of heart disease, incidentally we will get the added bonus of reducing the risk factors for the development of cancer," Vu said.

The bottom line

New research has found that a heart-healthy lifestyle will not only lower your risk of heart disease but also could cut your chances of developing cancer.
The findings suggest that the risk factors for cardiovascular disease could also lead to cancer. Therefore, healthy habits used to combat heart disease — eating a balanced diet, exercising, and managing cholesterol and blood pressure — could also help reduce a person's risk of developing cancer .

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