Friday, February 24, 2017

Doubling Down on Prevention: Heart Disease & Cancer's Shared Risk Factors


Even in parts of the country experiencing an early thaw, winter starts to feel a bit long by the end of February.  The days are still short. The temps are still low. And the trees are still mostly bare. 

Yet, even amidst all that, we can still take heart.  Not just because we're about to crest into March, and the first days of spring, but because February is literally "Heart" month.  American Heart Month - A federally designated month focused on raising awareness of the importance of heart disease and the steps that can help prevent and manage it. 

On top of this, February also happens to be Cancer Prevention Month, which is amazingly apt.  Heart disease and cancer are the first and second leading causes of death in the United States (see figure), together accounting for approximately 1.2 million deaths each year.  This takes an incredible toll on individuals and their families, as well as on the nation's health as a whole.  

Yet, at the same time, there's a positive message in the middle of the depressing numbers. Both heart disease and cancer are very preventable, which offers wonderful opportunities to make gains against the diseases. Approximately three quarters of heart disease and half of cancers could be avoided with overall healthy lifestyles. And most of the steps that lower the risk of one, also lower the risk of the other.

Shared health behaviors that can lower the risk of both heart disease and cancer, include:
  • Avoiding tobacco (and secondhand smoke)
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Being physically active
  • Eating a healthy diet - rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and low in unhealthy fats and red/processed meat
  • Getting screening tests, for certain cancers and heart disease risk factors - Talk with a doctor about which apply to you
  • Considering taking a daily low-dose aspirin, if age 50 - 69 - But talk with a doctor first 

Health recommendations often fall into silos of information.  Breast cancer in this silo.  Heart disease in that one.  And colon cancer over there. This can make it easy to miss how important some basic healthy behaviors can be for preventing many key chronic diseases.  Yet it's hard to overstate the potential impact of a handful of healthy behaviors.

So, while we're getting ready to shed some layers and get outside more often as the calendar moves toward spring, why not use these last, focused days of winter to think about one or two things you can do to give a boost to your health and lower your risk of heart disease and cancer? 
  • Add one more piece of fruit to your lunch a few days a week.  
  • Buy that cereal that has whole gains as a first ingredient. 
  • Search for some new meatless recipes to try.  
  • Visit smokefree.gov for information about quitting smoking.  
  • Tell yourself you're going to do something physically active every day -- no matter how small.  
  • Call your clinic or doctor's office to see if you're up-to-date on recommended health screenings and make an appoint to get caught up if you're not. 

Doing these things is probably easier than you think, and the benefits of doing them probably greater. You've got this.

For more tips on making healthy changes, see 8IGHT WAYS to Stay Healthy and Prevent Cancer.  For personalized prevention plans and estimate of your risk of cancer, heart disease, and other conditions, see Your Disease Risk.

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