For Your Health: Reduce heart disease and cancer risk at the same time

By Graham A. Colditz
Siteman Cancer Center

Even in parts of the country experiencing an early thaw, winter starts to feel a bit long come February, particularly during the ongoing pandemic. The days are still short. The temps are still low. And the trees are still mostly bare.

Yet, even amidst all that, we can take heart. Not just because we’re about to crest into the first days of spring and the promise of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, but because February is literally “Heart” month – American Heart Month, a federally designated month focused on the importance of heart disease and taking steps to help prevent and manage it.

On top of this, February also is National Cancer Prevention Month, which is quite apt, since heart disease and cancer are typically the top two leading causes of death in the U.S. Together, they account for about 1.2 million deaths each year, taking an incredible toll on individuals and families, and on the nation’s health as a whole.

But there’s a positive message in the middle of such depressing numbers. About three out of four heart disease cases and two out of four cancers could be avoided with overall healthy lifestyles. And most of the steps that lower the risk of one disease also lower the risk of the other.

Shared health behaviors that can lower the risk of both heart disease and cancer include:
Avoiding tobacco (and secondhand smoke)
Maintaining a healthy weight
Being physically active
Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in unhealthy fats and red or processed meat
Getting screening tests for certain cancers and heart disease risk factors. Talk with a doctor about which apply to you.

Health recommendations often fall into silos of information. Breast cancer in this silo. Heart disease in that one. And colon cancer over there. This can make it easy to miss how important some basic healthy behaviors can be for preventing many key chronic diseases. Yet it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of a handful of healthy behaviors.

So, while we’re getting ready to shed some layers and get safely outside more often as the calendar moves toward spring, why not use these last weeks of winter to think about one or two things you can do to give a boost to your health and lower your risk of heart disease and cancer?

Here are a handful of ideas to consider:

Add one more piece of fruit to your lunch a few days a week
Buy that cereal that has whole grains as a first ingredient
Search for some new meatless recipes to try
Visit smokefree.gov for information about quitting smoking
Try to do something physically active most days – no matter how easy
Call your clinic or doctor’s office to see if you’re up-to-date on recommended health screenings. If you’re not, make a plan with your provider to get back on track. Your county health department can be another great resource.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is going to be with us through much of this year, at least. So it remains important to keep ourselves and others safe as we make progress against it. But it’s also important that we continue to look after our overall health as well, even if that’s more complicated to do than it has been in past years. The benefits are well worth it. You’ve got this.

It’s your health. Take control.

For personalized prevention plans and an estimate of your risk of cancer, heart disease and other conditions, see yourdiseaserisk.com.

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. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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