A healthy lifestyle reduces the risk of colon cancer – regardless of the genetic risk profile

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The risk of developing bowel cancer depends, among other things, on lifestyle. Scientists from the German Cancer Research Center were able to show that everyone can reduce their personal risk of colon cancer by combining as many of five healthy lifestyles as possible: non-smoking, low alcohol consumption, a healthy diet, sufficient physical activity and normal body weight. This applies regardless of the genetic risk of bowel cancer. Even those who have a slightly increased risk due to genetic factors can reduce their risk by following a healthy lifestyle.

Colorectal cancer is currently the third most common tumor among men and the second most common among women in Germany. “Among other things, nutritional and lifestyle habits are responsible for this,” explains Michael Hoffmeister from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). “But everyone can reduce their risk of colon cancer by taking care to lead a healthy lifestyle.

This is impressively demonstrated by a study of more than 4000 bowel cancer patients and 3000 healthy control subjects. Hoffmeister and his colleagues from the DKFZ analysed the effects of five lifestyle factors that can be influenced: smoking or non-smoking, high or low alcohol consumption, unhealthy or healthy nutrition, little or a lot of physical activity and overweight or normal weight.

“The more healthy lifestyle factors the participants combined, the lower was their risk of developing bowel cancer,” reports Hoffmeister. Thus for example participants, who did not smoke, adhered to a healthy diet, and were physically active, had already a lower intestine cancer risk than participants, who stuck with none of the five life-style factors to the healthy variant. Those who cultivated a consistently healthy lifestyle had the lowest risk of colon cancer.

The five lifestyle factors proved to be of about equal importance in colorectal cancer prevention. “It played a subordinate role whether it was the non-smoking, healthy diet or physical activity that was heeded. With all variants, the study participants reduced their risk of colorectal cancer,” adds Prudence Carr, the first author of the study. The relationship between lifestyle and colorectal cancer risk was also independent of the study participants’ family history. It did not matter whether they had had a colonoscopy in the past or not.

“The recommendation to live a healthy lifestyle applies to everyone, regardless of their genetic risk of colon cancer. And, of course, not only the risk of colon cancer is reduced by a healthier lifestyle. At the same time, the risk of cardiovascular diseases and many other diseases dicreases,” emphasises Hoffmeister.

In further studies, the DKFZ scientists would now like to investigate to what extent the risk of colon cancer can be reduced by several preventive measures – for example through a healthier lifestyle and the performance of preventive examinations – despite a slightly increased genetic risk.

Despite major advances in prevention and early detection, colorectal cancer remains one of the most common cancers worldwide. According to estimates by the German epidemiological cancer registries and the Centre for Cancer Registry Data at the Robert Koch Institute, 33,000 men and 26,000 women in Germany will develop colorectal cancer in 2018.

Prudence R. Carr, Korbinian Weigl, Lina Jansen, Viola Walter, Vanessa Erben, Jenny Chang-Claude, Hermann Brenner, Michael Hoffmeister. Healthy Lifestyle Factors Associated With Lower Risk of Colorectal Cancer Irrespective of Genetic Risk. Gastroenterology 2018, DOI: 10.1053/y.gastro.2018.08.044

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.


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