Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: Healthy lifestyle, including plenty of physical activity, cuts colon cancer risk

A study underscores the extent to which a healthier lifestyle can lower your risk of developing colon cancer. The study was distinguished by the use of a comprehensive risk model that not only addressed multiple risk factors, but also weighed their changing impact over time. Previous studies have mostly focused on individual factors that either increase colon cancer risk (for example, high red meat consumption) or lower the risk (for example, aspirin use or exercise).

The analysis, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology (Oct. 1, 2009), calculated the incidence and relative risk of colon cancer in women up to age 70. The data came from the Nurses' Health Study and included 83,767 women who were ages 30 to 54 when the investigation began in 1976. The women were followed for 24 years while researchers gathered information about their height and weight, health habits, menopausal status, family and personal history of colon cancer, history of colon cancer screening, and use of aspirin, alcohol, and hormone therapy.

The strongest unmodifiable risk factor was genetic: having at least one first-degree relative (parent, child, or sibling) with colon cancer increased a woman's risk by 55%. But the modifiable risk factors had a far greater cumulative impact. A woman who didn't exercise, was consistently overweight, ate red or processed meat daily, consumed low levels of folate, and hadn't been screened for colon cancer was almost four times as likely to develop colon cancer by age 70 as a woman with a low-risk lifestyle (regular exercise, low red and processed meat consumption, low relative weight, and adequate folate).

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