The message that drinking a little alcohol is good for the heart has gotten plenty of attention. A new study linking alcohol with increased risk of dying from various cancers may temper that message a bit. About 4% of cancer deaths worldwide are related to alcohol use. A new study shows the in the United States, alcohol causes 3.5% of cancer deaths, or about 20,000 cancer-related deaths each year. The most common alcohol-related cancers were mouth, throat, and esophageal cancer in men, and breast cancer in women. At the same time, drinking alcohol in moderation (no more than two alcoholic drinks a day for men and no more than one a day for women) has been linked to lower rates of heart disease and deaths related to it. Advances in genetics may one day let us predict more accurately who can use alcohol in moderation and who should avoid it completely. Until then, it’s best to personally weigh the benefits and risks, ideally with a trusted health care provider.
If you like numbers and statistics, especially those about health, two reports released this week should keep you occupied for days: the massive Global Burden of Disease study was published in The Lancet, and the American Heart Association released its annual “Heart and stroke statistics” report. The Global Burden of Disease project found that average life expectancy continues to rise in most countries. It also found that infection and other communicable causes of disease no longer dominate deaths and disability. Today, so-called non-communicable causes like traffic accidents, violence and war, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions account for two-thirds of world deaths and the majority of years lost to disability and death. According to the American Heart Association’s annual report, the percentage of deaths due to heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases has fallen by nearly one-third since 1999, but don’t expect that to continue. Increases in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight, and inactivity threaten to reverse these gains.
Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can’t bear the thought of doing it again. That’s why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking the drastic measure of having both breasts removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy). Yet a University of Michigan study presented last week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium showed that nearly three-quarters of women who had this procedure were actually at very low risk of developing cancer in the healthy breast. In other words, many women are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. The new study suggests that more and better information about breast cancer recurrence—and the risks and benefits of prophylactic mastectomy—are needed as women consider this procedure.
Back in 2009, Dr. Andrew T. Chan and his colleagues at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital found that people diagnosed with colorectal cancer who took aspirin on a regular basis tended to live longer than those who didn’t take aspirin. Aspirin worked only for some people, though, so Chan and a larger team of researchers set out to learn why. Their latest work, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates that people with colorectal cancer who have a mutation in a gene called PIK3CA are most likely to benefit from aspirin. (About 15% to 20% of people with colorectal cancer have this gene mutation.) The mutation permits colon cancer cells to thrive. Aspirin blocks this action. If confirmed, this work could lead to routine genetic testing for people with this common cancer, and aspirin therapy for those with the PIK3CA mutation.
Americans’ love affair with vitamins—more than half of us take one a day—isn’t well supported by science. Trials of single vitamins, like E, C, and beta carotene, have been a bust. Whether multivitamins offer any health benefits has been something of a mystery. Now a new report indicates that taking a standard multivitamin-multimineral pill every day for more than a decade reduces the odds of developing cancer by 8%. The finding comes from the Physicians’ Health Study II, a Harvard-based trial in which nearly 15,000 male physicians took a daily pill containing 31 vitamins and minerals (Centrum Silver) or a placebo. The reduction could be due to fixing micronutrient deficiencies. It’s also possible that low doses of several vitamins and minerals might work together in other ways to prevent cancer. A daily multivitamin-multimineral supplement can provide some nutritional insurance, but it’s no replacement for vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and other healthful foods.
For years researchers have been trying to weigh the benefits of finding early breast cancers against the risks related to false positives (the spots that turn out to be harmless). This work has sparked some bitter public debates and confusion for women over flip-flopping recommendations. The latest salvo comes from a review of the results of mammograms among more than 12 million women in 18 European countries. The results support the idea that routine mammograms can prevent deaths from breast cancer without causing undue harm. The findings support the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendation that women between the ages of 50 and 74 have a mammogram every other year. Women at higher risk of developing breast cancer may need mammograms earlier than age 50, or more often than every other year.
Based on data presented this week at the Union for International Cancer Control meeting in Montreal, a startling 40% of cancers may stem from modifiable causes, such as diet, exercise, tobacco and alcohol exposure, and appropriate screening. Although adapting a healthy lifestyle isn’t an ironclad guarantee against cancer, it can help lower a person’s individual risk.
Although dying is a fact of life, few people want to think about it. One group that must think about dying are people with advanced cancer who are told they have just a few months to live. What helps them end their days as peacefully as possible? A new study from Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that being at home instead of in the hospital, talking with a chaplain or other minister, and spending time in private religious activity helped achieve this. When it’s clear that there’s no stopping cancer, heart failure, or other conditions, palliative care can help create a situation that maintains quality of life and leads to a “good death.”
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has stirred up a maelstrom of debate by proposing that healthy postmenopausal women lay off daily calcium and vitamin D supplements, which the task force says may do more harm than good. The USPSTF concluded that, based on the available evidence, supplements containing up to 400 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium don’t reduce fractures in postmenopausal women. Plus, these supplements may slightly increase the risk of kidney stones. As a result, the USPSTF says that postmenopausal women who aren’t at risk for osteoporosis shouldn’t be taking these supplements to prevent fractures. The jury is still out on whether it’s worth it for women and men to take higher doses of calcium and vitamin D to prevent fractures, or to take vitamin D to prevent cancer. Our experts say that most of your daily calcium should come from your kitchen, not your medicine chest.
Red meat hasn’t been getting very good press lately. Meat-heavy diets have been linked to increased risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. New findings from two long-term studies now indicate that eating lots of meat, especially processed meat, may also shorten your life. The new research involved nearly 125,000 female nurses and male health professionals, whose diet and health have been followed by Harvard School of Public Health researchers for more than two decades. Compared to eating less than one serving a day of red meat, adding one daily serving increased the chances of dying during the study period by 13%. (A serving is three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards). Red meat meant beef, pork, lamb, and hamburger. For every extra serving of processed meat (foods like hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts), the increase was 20%.