These Four Lifestyle Choices Could Cut Cancer Deaths in Half

Researchers from Harvard and Mass General found four behaviors that may help prevent cancer.


Running photo via Gao

Don’t smoke. Don’t drink too much. Maintain a healthy weight. Exercise. Those are all things you’ve heard a million times before, but a new study from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers says they bear repeating.

If Americans did those four things, according to the study, half of all U.S. cancer deaths and diagnoses could be prevented. That’s as many as 300,000 deaths and 842,600 diagnoses each year.

The researchers examined two large studies, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, to find connections between healthy lifestyle choices and cancer development. Specifically, they studied the effects of not smoking; of having only one (for women) or two (for men) drinks per day; of keeping body mass index between 18.5 and 27.5; and of doing at least 75 minutes of vigorous or 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week. They measured the impact of those choices by pitting a low-risk group—roughly 28,000 people who met those criteria—against a comparatively high-risk group, 107,648 people who did not.

They found that those four behaviors, when extrapolated to the country’s entire population, could help prevent 41 percent of cancer cases and 59 percent of cancer deaths in women, and 63 percent of cancer cases and 67 percent of cancer deaths in men. They had an especially large impact on the development of lung, colon, pancreatic, and kidney cancers, which together account for roughly 263,000 deaths in the United States each year.

The researchers note in their paper that, because their study subjects were health professionals, they may be more health-conscious than the average American, skewing the data slightly. Further, all of the subjects were white, so percentages may change slightly when applied to the national population.

The study’s message, however, is arguably more important than the intricacies of its numerical findings. At the very least, it should underscore how important lifestyle factors are—and that cancer prevention is, at least partially, within our control.