A lifestyle that conforms to 7 steps recommended to protect against heart disease may also reduce risk of cancer, according to new research published online this week in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Circulation.

In a statement to the press, lead author Laura J Rasmussen-Torvik, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, says she and her colleagues were glad to see the study results confirmed that the AHA’s seven steps, known as Life’s Simple 7, which are intended to improve heart health, are also linked to a reduced incidence of cancer.

“This can help health professionals provide a clear, consistent message about the most important things people can do to protect their health and lower their overall risk for chronic diseases,” she adds.

Life’s Simple 7 is a seven-point plan devised by the AHA as part of its My Life Check campaign to help Americans adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. The 7 simple steps are:

  1. Get Active: raise physical activity level to minimum of 150 minutes exercise a week (eg half hour brisk walking five days a week).
  2. Keep to a Healthy Weight: aim to have your body mass index (BMI) no higher than 25.
  3. Eat a Healthy Diet: low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars; high in whole grain fiber, lean protein, and a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
  4. Control Cholesterol: aim to have a total cholesterol level of under 200 mg/dL (but also check balance of HDL or “good” cholesterol and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, eg too little HDL, less than 40 mg/dL for men or less than 50 mg/dL for women, can be bad for heart).
  5. Manage Blood Pressure: normal is less than 120 mm Hg systolic AND less than 80 mm Hg diastolic. Prehypertension is 120 – 139 systolic OR 80 – 89 diastolic.
  6. Reduce Blood Sugar: fasting blood sugar level above 100, could indicate diabetes or prediabetes.
  7. Do Not Smoke: smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the US: apart from increasing risk of lung cancer, by itself it increases the risk of coronary heart disease and is also a major risk factor for stroke.

The My Life Check website offers information and tools to help people assess themselves and start making changes.

The researchers examined data on 13,253 white and African-American men and women from four communities who enrolled in the ongoing Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study in 1987.

When they joined the study the participants underwent physical exams and interviews to find out about their lifestyles and health.

To discover which of the participants developed cancer some 20 years or so later, the researchers looked in cancer registeries and hospital records.

They note that “2,880 incident cancer cases occurred over follow-up”.

The most common cancers were lung, colon or rectum, prostate and breast cancer.

The researchers did not consider non-melanoma skin cancers, and they didn’t look at how cancer risk factors changed over time.

When they analyzed the results, the researchers found that compared to not following any of the 7 steps, the 2.7% of the participants who followed 6 or 7 had a 51% lower risk of developing cancer.

Meeting just 4 of the factors was linked to a 33% reduction in cancer risk.

Meeting just 1 or 2 was associated with a 21% lower risk.

Rasmussen-Torvik says the results add to the “strong body of literature suggesting that it’s never too 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”.

The researchers found if they ignored smoking status, participants who followed 5 or 6 of the remaining 6 steps still had a 25% lower risk of developing cancer.

Rasmussen-Torvik says:

“We’re trying to help promote a comprehensive health message. Quitting smoking is very important, but there are other factors you need to be aware of if you want to live a healthy life.”

According to research from Cancer Research UK, 40% of cancers are avoidable.

More than 100,000 cases of cancer diagnosed in the UK each year can be directly attributable to cigarettes, diet, alcohol and obesity, and this figure raises to 134,000 when taking into account over a dozen lifestyle and environmental risk factors.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD