How a Healthy Heart Can Lower Risk of Cancer

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Hearts and tumors may actually share more in common than we think.

Following heart-healthy recommendations can also protect you from cancer, according to the latest study from the American Heart Association (AHA). Eating a healthy diet, exercising and maintaining your weight have long been ways to fend off heart disease, but researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago report in the journal Circulation that following the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 steps to reduce heart disease can also cut cancer risk.

The Life’s Simple 7 include:

  • Being physically active
  • Keeping a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels
  • Keeping blood pressure down
  • Regulating blood sugar levels
  • Not smoking

(MORE: Berries Linked to Lower Heart Disease Among Women)

Researchers studied the health records of 13,253 white and African-American men and women who were involved in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, which tracked the seven risk factors and the participants’ health outcomes since 1987. At the beginning of the study, the volunteers were examined and  interviewed about which healthy behaviors they followed.

Twenty years later, the researchers reviewed hospital records and cancer registries and discovered that 2,880 of the participants were diagnosed with cancer of the lung, colon or rectum, prostate and breast. Those who were diagnosed, however, tended to follow fewer of the Life’s Simple 7 behaviors than those who did not develop cancer. People who followed six of the seven health metrics had a 51% lower cancer risk than the participants who did not meet any of the steps. The relationship held even after the scientists accounted for the effect of smoking on cancer risk; when smoking was taken out of the equation, participants who followed five to six of the health steps had a 25% lower cancer risk.

(MORE: For Better Heart Health Exercise Harder, Not Longer)

“This adds to the strong body of research suggesting that it is never late to change, and that if you make changes like quitting smoking and improving your diet, you can reduce your risk for both cardiovascular disease and cancer,” said lead study author Laura J. Rasmussen-Torvik, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in a statement.

That’s welcome, and helpful news amid the current sea of conflicting and confusing data about preventing chronic disease. In this case, the message is actually quite simple — certain healthy habits, such as eating foods low in fat, sugar and calories, and exercising regularly, can lower your risk of two of the major killers of American adults. “There are many health messages presented in the popular press and frequent (and sometimes contradictory) reports of novel risk factors for disease,” Rasmussen-Torvik and her colleagues write. “These messages sometimes confuse consumers, leaving them unsure on the most important steps to take for disease prevention. We hope that emphasizing a unified approach from multiple chronic disease advocacy groups, promoting some common steps for disease prevention, will be particularly effective in helping the public to prevent chronic disease.”

MORE: A Happy, Optimistic Outlook May Protect Your Heart