Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Room for Improvement: Rates of Cancer Risk Factors in Young Adults

As we've written about before on Cancer News in Context, good evidence points to the important role that behaviors in youth and young adulthood can have on cancer risk later in life.

Health habits started in youth not only have a longer time to impact risk, but they can also have unique and important interactions with the biology of certain developmental stages.  Smoking, for example, seems to have the biggest impact on breast cancer risk when it takes place in the years between a woman's first period and when she first gives birth.  Likewise, sun exposure and indoor tanning has its biggest impact on melanoma risk when it takes place early in life.

Though there is still a lot we don't know about the relationship between early life risk factors and disease risk later in adulthood - largely because the vast majority of studies to date have been done in middle-aged or older populations - it is clear from the studies we do have that the earlier in life we can cement healthy habits, the better.

Yet, a new study of national data shows that there's still great room for improvement in those critical early years. The study, conducted by researchers from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the CDC, analyzed results from the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, which asked a random sampling of Americans about a range of health habits and related information.

Across nearly all behaviors reported, there were very few bright spots (see figure below).

Nearly 20 percent of all young adult men and women were obese, meaning they had a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. For someone who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, that translates to a weight of 180 pounds or more. And these numbers do not even include the percentage of young adults who were overweight (BMI 25 - 29.9) but not obese.  While obesity has the largest weight-related impact on the risk of cancer, simply being overweight also adds to risk.

While smoking rates have dropped dramatically from their high-points, 11 percent of young women and 15 percent of young men still smoke tobacco cigarettes.  And nearly 8 percent of young men use e-cigarettes, despite their short and long-term risks remaining largely unknown.

Though physical activity is one of the best ways to lower disease risk and improve health and overall quality of life, nearly 30 percent of young women and just over 20 percent of young men get little or no physical activity.

Indoor tanning - which can double the risk of deadly melanoma - remains relatively popular in young women.  While, overall, 11 percent of women ages 18 - 24 had used a tanning bed in the past year,  this number kicks up to 17 percent in non-Hispanic whites.  Two percent or less of young men had indoor tanned.

Perhaps the most striking numbers were the very high rates of sugary drink consumption, processed meat consumption, and lack of HPV vaccination.  Over half of men and women drank sugary drinks daily, which increases the risk of weight gain, among other health risk factors.  And over two-thirds of men and over half of women regularly ate processed meat, which increases the risk of colon cancer.

Approximately 58 percent of women 18 - 26 years old and 79 percent of men 18 - 21 years old had not had the HPV vaccine, despite it lowering the risk of multiple cancers - including those of the cervix, anus, penis, and throat (which is becoming increasingly common). (Data not included in figure).

We know that half of all cancers could be prevented with a healthy lifestyle, and that that number is likely higher when healthy behaviors start early in life and are maintained through adulthood.  The results of this new study show that much more work needs to be done to help instill healthy behaviors in childhood that then continue into the teens and early twenties and beyond.

Parents and other family members play a key role in helping children develop healthy habits.  As kids age, and their independence grows, they play an increasing role in their own health.  At all stages, though, neither parents nor kids nor adults exist in a vacuum.  Our health behaviors are influenced by numerous different factors.  Personal choice is just one.  And outside of that, our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, friends and broader social circles, and local and state governments and policies have an important impact on the health behaviors we make and sustain.

Healthy school meals and daily PE can help lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthful eating and regular activity.  Nice sidewalks and bike paths can make it easier for families to get out for walks and bike rides.  Employers that provide affordable health insurance and allow time off for doctor's appointment make it easier for workers to get important preventive care and screening. Promotion of healthy choices by popular opinion leaders on Snapchat and Instagram can impact attitudes and choices of teenagers influenced by such social media. And targeted taxes on tobacco and sugary drinks can curb purchasing by youth and young adults, who are particularly sensitive to cost.

To make important headway against cancer and other preventable chronic diseases, we need to promote and support prevention on these multiple levels.  The lessons from tobacco show that such broad-based approaches work.  What is lacking in these other areas are appropriate resources and political will to tackle them as we've been able to do tobacco.

The return on the time and resources invested would, no doubt, be many times over.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Practical Steps to Prevent Breast Cancer

Two years ago during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we posted over nine days excerpts from our, then, new book TOGETHER:  Every Woman's Guide to Preventing Breast Cancer. Each of the nine days focussed on a single practical step that could help lower the risk of the disease.  With each of the steps still relevant and important - and, we hope, still practical - we thought we'd post the compact list - nine days in one - and let readers click through a la carte.

Practical Steps to Prevent Breast Cancer

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

New York Joins Other States with Growing E-Cigarette Restrictions

In a little under a month in New York state, electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) will be banned wherever standard tobacco cigarettes are prohibited. The move adds to a growing list of states restricting e-cig use because of concerns about their impact on health and safety.

Although e-cigs are often marketed as safer alternatives to standard cigarettes – with some analyses showing they could have some benefits in narrow scenarios – good evidence remains lacking on their risks, on their effectiveness as a smoking cessation aid, and on their impact on youth and adult smoking rates.

The lack of such important information warrants restrictions on their sale and use.

Standard cigarettes remain the top preventable cause of death in the United States, and the primary goal of any tobacco smoker should be to quit. E-cigs, however, are not an FDA-approved method for helping smokers quit. Approved cessation aids include nicotine gum, lozenges and patches, and certain medications. Seeing a doctor for help quitting can double a smoker’s chance of success.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

How Does Your State's Health Stack Up?

Ever wonder how you're state stacks up compared to others when it comes to important health risk factors? If so, a tool from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (below) can help you do just that. And while it can be fun to click through and explore the data from different states and for different risk factors, the tool helps illustrate an important point: that health, and the health choices we all make, are part of the broader world in which we live. The policies, infrastructure, and social environment that surround us can have an important influence on things like how active we are, what food we eat, and the preventive healthcare we get. For healthy individuals, and a healthy nation, these aspects need to work together: the healthy choices people make, and the settings that foster and support those choices.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center: 25 Years of Progress on the Links Between Overweight and Cancer

At today's annual symposium of the Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center (BNORC), CNiC's Dr. Graham Colditz delivered a plenary session talk reviewing BNOCR's 25-year contribution to the science on obesity and cancer.

A past associate director of the Center, Colditz also paid tribute to groundbreaking nutrition researcher, George Blackburn, who passed away in February 2017 and played a key leadership role in establishing BNORC and fostering its important work. In addition to discussing Blackburn's role in advancing such fields as obesity economics, chronic disease prevention, and bariatric surgery, Colditz also recounted how Blackburn's driven nature also translated to his driving habits on Boston's infamous roads, with oftentimes exciting results.
"George offered to drive me back to my office on Longwood Avenue," said Colditz. "I accepted, and am pleased to say I survived a dash through city traffic with George at the wheel, a harrowing experience I expect many other here have shared over the years." 

Despite the stress his driving may have caused in others, Blackburn, and BNORC in general, did a great deal to help shape our current understanding of health and prevention.  Key studies showed the important role of adult weight gain on the risk of heart disease and breast cancer - and that BMIs within the upper end of the "normal" weight range could still significantly increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Findings like these played an important role in shaping national health policy, possibly most notably with the practical recommendation in the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that adults should "maintain or improve weight," rather than simply focus on trying to achieve a healthy weight, which is not practical for many people. Simply avoiding future gain could have large benefits across many types of diseases and across the nation.

Other advances the work of BNORC played a role in was in identifying links between overweight and cancer, with much of this work foundational to a 2016 International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report detailing the strong association between excess weight and 13 different cancers, including: breast, colon and rectum, endometrial, esophageal (adenocarcinoma), gallbladder, gastric, kidney (renal cell), liver, multiple myeloma, ovary, pancreas, and thyroid.

As our understanding of the weight-cancer link grows, said Colditz, we may in the future be better able to personalize lifestyle recommendations for people - to help them lower their future risk of cancer or improve their prognosis as cancer survivors. As well, we may better be able to understand how to allocate resources across the population for maximum impact.

# # #

"BNORC: Contribution over 25 years to evidence on obesity and cancer."- Graham A. Colditz, MD, DrPH. Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center Annual Symposium and Tribute to George Blackburn, MD PhD, Boston, MA (July 10, 2017).


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Stark Inequality: Study Finds 20-Year Difference in Life Expectancy Between Counties in United States

By Hank Dart

Differences in life expectancy in the United States can vary greatly depending on the county in which you live.  That's the finding of a new analysis out of the University of Washington and published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Using data from the Human Mortality Database, National Center for Health Statistics, and U.S. Census Bureau, researches calculated the average life expectancies of counties between the years 1980 and 2014.  They also assessed factors in the counties that could impact health - and therefore life expectancy - such as health behaviors, socioeconomic status (SES), and access to health care.

The analysis revealed a very large 20-year difference in life expectancy between the counties with the longest life expectancy and those with the shortest.  While average life-expectancy for women and men combined was 79 years in 2014, counties with the highest life-expectancy averaged 87 years.  Those with the lowest averaged just 66 years. Comparing the top 1 percent of counties with the lowest 1 percent, the life-expectancy gap was 11 years. Comparing the top 10 percent of counties with the lowest 10 percent, the gap was 6 years.

Counties on the lower half of the Mississippi River and those on some Native American reservations in South and North Dakota had some of the lowest life expectancy in the nation, while those in central Colorado Counties had some of the highest.  A related online dynamic tool allows users to explore life expectancy and mortality rates for counties across the nation.

Looking at trends since 1980, the researchers conclude that inequality in life expectancy in United States is "large and increasing."  Though such inequality has dropped in younger groups, it remains stark in older groups and populations as a whole.

In trying to tease out the causes of these disparities, the researchers found that certain health and behavioral factors had the biggest influence.  Obesity, lack of physical inactivity, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes were found to account for 74 percent of the life expectancy differences between counties.

This new analysis further confirms the importance of addressing growing inequality in the United States. Populations with lower incomes, less education, and more discrimination are more likely to suffer from lifestyles and diseases that result in premature mortality.  Programs and policies need to be put in place to narrow these gaps and address these issues.

How long you live and how healthy you are should not depend on where you live.  Right now, it can.  And we need to change that.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Study Looks at Economic Cost of Physical Inactivity. Hint: It's Big.

A new analysis published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that physical inactivity results in a significant economic burden the world over. Though the authors found that studies looking at the economic impact of inactivity lacked consistent methodology - which, therefore, limited specific conclusions - sedentary lifestyles were found to account for large percentages of direct health care expenditures in a number of countries. In the United States, 2.4 - 11.1 percent of direct health care expenditures on things like doctors visits and hospital stays were linked to inactivity.  In New Zealand, it was 4.5 percent.  In China, it was 2.4 percent. And in the United Kingdom, it was 0.3 - 1.5 percent.  Globally, the "pandemic" of physical inactivity - as the authors describe it - was estimated in one study to be 0.64 percent.

Ding D, et al. Br. J Sports Med. 2017
And these are just direct health costs from diseases and conditions caused by physical inactivity.  Indirect costs, which take into account other economic burdens of  physical inactivity, such as lost work productivity and wages, are also substantial.

As the authors conclude:
Based on the findings from the studies reviewed, it is evident that physical inactivity is a costly pandemic that is associated with a substantial disease burden in almost every country where estimates exist.  

Related Cancer News in Context posts on physical activity.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reaching the Goal of 80% Colon Cancer Screening by 2018: Practical Lessons from Community Clinics

A great interview this week with Belma Andrić, MD, MPH on the 80% by 2018 blog highlights successful approaches that can boost colon cancer screening rates at community clinics with underserved populations.

During her tenure as Medical Director with C. L. Brumback Primary Care Clinics in Florida, colon screening rates increased from 21 percent in 2013 to 82 percent in 2016 - meeting and surpassing the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable's goal of an 80 percent screening rate by 2018.

How did they do this?  By tackling the issue at multiple levels and developing creative ways to work around barriers.  Some lessons from their experience include:

Collaborate.  Groups within the clinic not only worked together to improve screening rates but the clinics also worked with the Florida state primary care health systems manager and an American Cancer Society local liaison.

Staff a patient navigator.   "This proved to be one of the best decisions we made," Andrić says. The navigator was key to addressing the needs and concerns of the patients while also making sure screening efforts synched within the clinic system.  One key aspect of the navigators' work was to walk patients through the steps of colonoscopy bowel prep and to check in with them during the process.

Make the offer of screening "second nature."  One initial top barrier to screening was the fact that many patients were simply not being offered screening at their clinic visits.  They addressed this problem through a combination of provider/team education, weekly check-ins, and some friendly competition between care teams - "doctors are very competitive." 

Make it easy and immediate.  Clinics implemented a "Poop on Demand" program that asked patients if they wanted to provide a stool sample for testing while they were at the clinic.  This boosted rates of FIT testing by 30 - 40 percent.

"Don't get discouraged."  Barriers of all kinds pop up with any program.  Expect that they will come up, even if the specific barriers are unexpected.  Most can be overcome.

Seek extra funding.  The clinics applied for - and received - an American Cancer Society Community Health Advocates implementing Nationwide Grants for Empowerment and Equity (CHANGE) grant, which helped them explore and implement strategies for improving screening rates.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Looking for a Good Return on Investment? Fund Public Health Programs

In a recent New England Journal of Medicine Sounding Board article, Karen Emmons and Cancer News in Context's Graham Colditz detailed the well-established health and economic benefits of disease prevention programs.   One example they highlighted was the more than double return on investment (ROI) of dollars put towards a tobacco cessation program in Massachusetts.

Now, a new systematic review by Rebecca Masters and fellow researchers in the United Kingdom shows that that very good doubling of ROI may actually be on the low end of returns when it comes to the positive economic benefits of many public health interventions.  Looking at published studies on interventions as varied as speed limits, needle exchange, soda taxes, vaccination, medication adherence, and tobacco cessation, the researchers found that the average ROI across all such interventions was 14.  This means that for every dollar invested in the reviewed public health programs, 14 dollars (plus the initial dollar invested) was saved.  

While a small number of individual studies in the review showed a negative ROI, the vast majority found positive results, with some very large, such as the ROI for sugary soda tax legislation.  The table below highlights some of the individual studies used to calculate the overall ROI for the public health interventions.

Selected interventions (single study results) ROI
Sugar-sweetened beverage tax $55.00
Tobacco cessation (pregnant women) $6.72 - 17.18
Workplace health management $4.51
Cycling & walking trails $2.94
Universal Hepatitis B vaccination $2.98
Tobacco cessation (general) $2 - 2.25

With such large and consistent findings of economic benefit, it is hard to understand why such health programs need to fight so hard for adequate funding.  As the authors write, "even with the most rudimentary economic evaluations, it was clear that most public health intervention are substantially cost saving."

Unfortunately, success in public health can take time and it can feel muted next to flashier news items - both of which can hamper funding efforts.  To capitalize on these numbers - to realize the potential of their great return on investment - we need to find a way to effectively tell our stories, to build public interest, and to garner the political will to fund public health appropriately.  The economic and health benefits could be enormous.  We should not leave them on the table.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe Promotes Physical Activity Through a Program of Traditional Dance

National Public Radio aired a really nice piece yesterday about a fitness program developed by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of northern Idaho that focusses on traditional American Indian dance.  With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the program uses exercise classes and a series of fitness videos based on powwow dances to get tribal members moving.

Featuring both men's and women's dances, the "Powwow Sweat" videos have engaging whimsical touches and interlace dancers in standard workout clothes and those in traditional dress. Similar exercise classes are also offered at the Tribe's wellness center.

As reported in the piece, the traditional, cultural approaches of the program may help it reach and engage people to a greater degree than one solely based on physical activity alone.
"It's this combination of tradition and exercise that keeps tribal member Ryan Ortivez and his neighbors coming to class each week, to watch the videos and dance alongside each other. 
'It's a lot more attractive than doing jogging or the bicycle for me, because it also relates to my culture,' says Ortivez."

This kind of tailored approach and support is key to improving health behaviors in all populations.  We respond to messages that resonate with us, and that are supported within our broader communities.    "Powwow Sweat" is a great example of a program working to do just that.

It is also of particular interest to us as we've had the opportunity to partner with the Buder Center for American Indian Studies at Washington University on health outreach.  And we've recently tailor two of our 8 Ways to Prevent Cancer series titles to American Indian and Alaska Native populations (Breast Cancer & Colon Cancer), each of which was distributed at the Center's 27th Annual Powwow this past March.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Large Study Further Confirms Overweight & Obesity Increase Risk of Premature Death

 A "normal" weight - with BMI between 22.5 and 24.9 - was linked to lowest risk

by Hank Dart

It turns out that a healthy weight is a healthy weight. That's the essential conclusion of a large and well-designed new study looking at long term weight and its relation to premature death.

What makes this seemingly common sense finding especially newsworthy is that it runs counter to some recent high-profile studies that have concluded that being overweight or slightly obese may actually provide the best protection against premature mortality, even more so than being at what is classified as a "normal" or "healthy" weight.

Not surprisingly, these past "obesity paradox" studies made a splash in both the media and scientific circles, grabbing headlines the world over.

Yet, many researchers had concerns about the design of these studies, and therefore the

trustworthiness of their findings. The main issue was that the studies did not seem to adequately take into account smoking status and pre-clinical disease, which can have an important impact on both weight and the risk of death. Pre-clinical disease is an illness that has not yet been diagnosed but that can lead to weight loss and increased risk of dying. And weight loss from such illness can happen many years before it is diagnosed. Likewise, smokers also tend to weigh less and have a higher risk of dying. Unless a study is designed correctly, each of these factors can incorrectly sway results to show that being a normal weight increases the risk of death, and being overweight lowers risk.

This new study, performed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, was design to address such issues by using participants' maximum weight over a 16-year period. This way, the impact of weight loss due to pre-clinical disease could be limited. A participant with a maximum weight in the "normal" category, for example, would not have gotten there by losing weight -- such as due to an unknown illness.


Following 225,000 middle-aged men and women for another 8 - 20 years, the researchers found a steady increase in risk of premature death with overweight and obesity, compared to normal weight (see figure). Underweight also increased risk in women. The lowest risk of premature death was with a body mass index (BMI) between 22.5 - 24.9, which is a weight of 148 - 164 pounds for someone 5 feet, 8 inches tall.

While these findings are not necessarily surprising - since they fall in line with the guidelines for healthy weight and unhealthy weight - they are quite an important counter to the widespread "obesity paradox" coverage. Next to smoking, weight is the most important health issue in the nation - and increasingly the globe. In addition to lowering quality of life, overweight and obesity increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, liver disease, and thirteen different cancers. 

Working to maintain a healthy weight remains one of the best things people can do for their health and well-being.  While it's not easy, it's certainly worth it. 

See our recent post for simple tips to help keep weight in check.



Photo: Mini-me-7 by Marcel Oostervijk (CC License, CC BY-SA 2.0) (Edited: Cropped)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Another Look at Luck and Cancer: Risk Accumulation & Prevention

by Graham Colditz

The debate regarding luck, prevention, and cancer risk is in the media again today (see Science, NPR, Forbes, and many others).

The authors of this new paper -- a follow-up of their original published two years ago and which caused such stir -- make a clear effort too classify cancer risk as due to H - hereditary (our parents - who we cannot change), E - environmental exposures (modifiable risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, weight gain in adult years, and lack of physical activity) and R - rate of DNA damage accumulated as cells divide.  By taking this approach, however, we continue to focus on the underlying rate of division and DNA damage, not the factors that modify this rate and certainly are known to modify cancer risk.

Doll and Armitage showed in 1954 that 5 to 6 mutations were needed to generate cancer in lung, colon, and numerous other organ sites. Yes, the multistage model proposed in 1954 was largely correct based only on assessment of age and cancer mortality in the UK. Of course, back then, treatment did not change outcomes to any great extent.

Today, we have more evidence that the rate of DNA damage varies by age.  For example, breast cancer shows this clearly in animal models and through incidence in women. The stages of a woman's life are associated with different rates of cell division - faster from the time a woman has her first menstrual period to the time she has her first baby, then more slowly after each baby, to even slower after menopause (unless a women uses hormone therapy that consists of estrogen-plus-progestins).

We wrote on this some time ago, (see below) as have many others.

While risk accumulates through cell divisions, we know that avoiding smoking and other major risk factors dramatically reduces the risk of specific cancers.

As the cancer burden continues to increase globally, using what we know from decades of cancer research lets us as a society reap benefits now.  Our return on investment on what we already know is waiting to be collected.  We just need the foresight and political will to do it.

12 Little Things That Can Put a Hitch in Your Efforts to Keep Weight in Check - And Ways to Fix Them

by Hank Dart

Even in the middle of the roiling media cycle we're in, diet has still managed to break through and make headlines the past couple weeks. Probably the biggest recent story was the release of a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that around 40 - 50 percent of deaths in the United States from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes could be linked to unhealthy eating. Big culprits were eating too much sodium and processed meat, and not enough nuts, seeds, and fish rich in healthy fats.

Following on the heels of this was a paper in the journal Cancer Causes and Control by Isabelle Romieu of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which detailed the key drivers of energy imbalance that lead to obesity. Energy imbalance, when it comes to weight gain, simply means consuming more calories than you need, which over time can lead to becoming overweight and possibly obese.

And, as many of us have frustratingly found, it doesn't take too many of these extra calories to put on weight, something Romieu and her co-authors highlight -
"Very small deviations from energy balance, on the order of 1 - 2% of daily energy intake, can result in large long-term change in body weight (~20kg)[Ed: ~44lbs]."
For a moderately active adult woman, for example, 1 - 2 percent is only about 20 - 40 extra calories a day. That's the splash of cream in a morning coffee, three ounces of sugary soda, or half a small cookie. Or looking at it from the other end, that's the calories burned by walking less than half a mile. Not much at all.

Clearly, the little things we do in relation to how we eat and how active we are can really matter, especially over time. So, let's take a look at some of the little things that can put a hitch in our best efforts to keep in energy balance.

 Most likely, we all have at least one or two -- and probably more -- that we do regularly. The good news: because they're little, or at least little-ish, they're sometimes not too hard to start to tackle. 

Why not begin today?

Eating too fast
It's a go, go, go world these days, and that mindset can transfer to our eating, too. But eating food fast can easily lead to overeating because our minds and stomachs need some time to synch up. You can quickly down two hot dogs, a shake, and large fries before your mind has had a chance to register the first hot dog and tell you you've had enough. Before you know it, you feel stuffed and may have eaten a 1,000 calories more than your body actually wanted.

The fix: Simply try to slow down at each meal. Take time between bites. Enjoy your food. This slower pace can put your stomach and mind in better synch and help you feel satisfied with less food.

Ordering "the works"
Steer clear of ordering anything with "the works." Along with "stuffed crust" and "extra whip," "the works" are two terrible words to utter when you're working to keep calories in check. Whether on a potato, hamburger, or dessert, "the works" is usually just a vehicle for extra calories you may not even enjoy all that much.

The fix: Try low-calorie toppings instead, like fresh fruit, tomatoes, or salsa.

Being swayed by advertising
Most food companies want to get us to eat and drink - and the more the better. And they spend billions of dollars a year on advertising to get us to do just that. So, it's important to try to develop a bit of media savvy when it comes to advertising, so we can make clear, objective choices about the food we eat.

The fix: When you see a food ad, just take a moment and ask yourself: Why is the company paying for this ad? Is the ad a true depiction of what buying and eating the food is like? Is the food a healthy choice for me and my family? Most of the time, the answers will speak for themselves.

Driving a lot
Many of us need to spend way too much time in cars -- or on buses or subways. It's just a fact of life. We have to get to and from work, pick up the kids, and run errands. But many times, we also take the car or other transportation when we could just as easily walk or ride a bike. And this cuts out a great opportunity to easily add some physical activity to our days.

The fix: If it's safe, try to do some errands on foot or by bike a couple times a week. Then, build from there.

Eating mindlessly
Most of us do some amount of automatic eating -- eating without really thinking about it because there's food in front of us, our favorite TV show is on, or it's a certain time of day. But such mindless eating, usually when we're not even hungry, can add a lot of extra calories to our days.

The fix: Just take a moment and think before you eat. Ask yourself: Am I actually hungry? If you're not, try to do something other than eating for while. Go for a quick walk, play a game, even do some chores or errands you've been putting off.

Throwing in the towel 
Set-backs are natural. We're human. But don't let set-backs frustrate you into abandoning your health goals - even for a day. Yes, you ate five pink cookies you hadn't plan to and missed your workout. That's OK. Keep the long view.

The fix: Stay positive and know that health is a journey. And journeys are rarely straight lines to a destination. There can be twists and turns. Just get back on track and keep moving forward -- knowing you can get where you want to be.

Drinking calories
A lot of beverages are packed with calories -- sugary soda, sweet tea, and many types of blended coffee drinks. On top of this, it's been shown that our bodies don't register these liquid calories as readily as those from food. So, we often don't compensate for beverage calories by eating fewer food calories. The result: extra calories in our day.

The fix: Choose water or unsweetened tea and coffee instead of sugary drinks. Start with just one or two days a week, but eventually try to get down to zero sugary drinks. It's probably not as hard as you think.

Being too refined
Being refined in life is wonderful, but eating too many refined grains is not. Refined grains -- which make up foods like white bread, white rice, and regular pasta -- have had most of their fiber and nutrients stripped out in processing. Diets rich in less-processed whole grains -- like, 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, and old-fashioned oatmeal -- have been shown to help keep weight in check.

The fix: Try to start buying more whole-grain foods. There are a lot of options these days. Look for foods with "whole" or "whole-grain" as a first ingredient and not too much sugar (7grams/serving or less).

Avoiding the bathroom scale
Not many people enjoy stepping on the bathroom scale. But avoiding it for long periods can lead to unwelcome surprises. Weight gain has a way of sneaking up on people. An extra pound here and an extra pound there can really add up over time. Stepping on the scale weekly, even daily, can help us keep track of our weight and adjust how much we're eating and how active we are.

The fix: Set a date with your scale -- every Tuesday at 7am, say -- and keep it. Want to go a step further? Keep track of your weight with a paper log or smartphone app.

Ignoring calorie labels
One thing's clear by now: calories matter. And although it's not essential to painstakingly track how many calories are in the food we eat, it can be helpful to have a general idea. Some meals, especially when we're eating out, can have a surprisingly large number of calories, at times bordering on a whole day's worth.

The fix: Many restaurants and fast food places post calorie-counts on menus, so they're pretty easy to find. Given them a quick read before you order, so you know what you're getting, and adjust if you need to.

Eating out for lunch - a lot
Eating lunch out -- whether at a restaurant, fast-food place, or food truck -- is often fun, tasty, and easy. But there can be downsides, too. It can be unhealthy, expensive, and calorie-packed.

The fix: Try to brown-bag it more often. Packing your lunch with healthy foods, in modest portions, means you're more likely to keep calories in check.

Waiting 'til tomorrow
Trying to get on a healthier path -- whether it's walking more or eating more fruits and vegetables -- isn't always easy. So, it's natural to want to put things off. And a day here or a day there may not make much difference, but the more you put things off, the more likely you are to keep putting things off. The sooner you get started on a healthier path, the sooner it'll become second nature to you, and the sooner you'll start getting benefits.

The fix: Try a new healthy behavior today, no matter how small it may seem. It can be buying a banana at lunch or walking to a bus stop that's further away than usual. Then keep it up, building over time with other healthy changes. 

You've got this.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ready for the Taking: The Economic & Health Benefits of Implementing Cancer Prevention

For a topic that always gets a lot of news coverage, health and healthcare has been in the media even more than usual since the 2016 election. While it’s unclear exactly where the current debates on Obamacare and the American Health Care Act will lead, a Sounding Board article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine by Karen Emmons, PhD and Washington University’s Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH makes one thing clear: we could drastically cut the burden of cancer if we invest appropriate health resources to successfully implementing the things we already know could prevent more than half of all cancers. 

In the sweeping article, Emmons and Colditz detail the often large disparities between states in rates of healthy behaviors that can lower cancer risk. In the nation as a whole, for example, 15 percent of people smoke, but rates vary by 17 percentage points between Utah (9.7 percent) and West Virginia (26.7 percent). Rates of obesity vary by 16 percentage points between Colorado (20.2 percent) and Louisiana (36.2 percent). And rates of physical inactivity vary 15 points between Colorado (16.4) and Mississippi (31.4 percent). Such inequality can be parsed further, with rates varying within states by county and socioeconomic groups, for example.  Vulnerable populations — those in poverty, or with mental health issues, or in minority groups — often have worse health profiles and health outcomes compared to others.

The effort to combat smoking — one of the greatest public health success stories of the past 50 years — still has great room for improvement. State cigarette taxes on a pack of cigarettes, which demonstrably leads to lower smoking rates, vary from less than 25 cents a pack to over four dollars. And evidence-based programs to help people quit smoking are unevenly implemented and unevenly funded not only between states but across town. Devoting enough resources to fully realize the benefit of controlling tobacco use nationwide will have large health and economic benefits.

 Emmons and Colditz write as an example:
“Every $1 expended on a comprehensive smoking-cessation program in Massachusetts was associated with a return on investment of $2.12.”

This Massachusetts program, MassHealth, expanded evidence-based tobacco-cessation coverage in low-income smokers and included effective pharmacological approaches. The program lowered rates of smoking in this group by 26 percent — a group with typically static cessation rates, and the annual rate of admissions for heart attacks dropped 46 percent, and admissions for coronary atherosclerosis dropped 49 percent.

Other cancer-prevention approaches — increasing activity, controlling weight, improving diet, and getting youth vaccinated against HPV, say — also have vast potential for health benefits nationwide.  If they get implemented and implemented effectively.  Yet, efforts to determine the best way to get people and communities to adopt such behaviors — and then to put these into practice — are under-resourced. As Emmons and Colditz write:
“Simply put, as a nation, we continue to underinvest in primary prevention and screening and fail to adopt strategies to ensure that all population groups benefit equally from our knowledge of cancer prevention.”

Yet, as with tobacco cessation, we know certain approaches work with these other risk factors. Rates of HPV vaccination lag significantly between the US and Australia. The US lacks a comprehensive, effective vaccination program, which leads to lower rates overall and large variability between states, with 68.0 percent of girls fully vaccinated in Rhode Island but only 24.4 percent in Mississippi. Australia, on the other hand has an overall rate of 74 percent for girls and one nearly as high for boys.

The difference? HPV vaccination in Australia is mandated for boys and girls and is paid for by the Australian government. The high vaccination rates have led to a substantial drop in positive Pap tests and the need for women to return for after-test follow-up. The future drop in rates of cervical cancer because of HPV vaccination should be substantial.

We should build on such lessons and learn what works best in the US for implementing cancer-prevention strategies. Research should focus on the patient, provider, organization, and policy levels to increase cancer prevention interventions to lower healthcare costs and patient mortality. Such as,
  • Funding for safety net clinics (at-risk populations). Health equity is key. We must be sure to focus on preventing cancer in the most vulnerable populations. 
  • Implementing environment and policy changes. Talking multiple levels of society works, such as smoking bans at work, schools, and restaurants; and required HPV vaccinations for school children. 
  • Fostering a focus on prevention in clinical settings. This can include: Patient education and provider interaction about smoking cessation, lifestyle factors, and recommended screening. 
While learning to effectively put into practice those things we already know can prevent cancer may not be as flashy or newsworthy as the discovery of a new treatment or previously unidentified gene mutation, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the same attention and the same resources.

The real power of prevention has yet to be realized - or even really appreciated. Yet, prevention has been shown to work in public health interventions, to be cost effective, to lower mortality, and to have a high return on investment.  It is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

As Emmons and Colditz conclude:
“ Although many efforts are under way to maximize our knowledge about the causes and treatments of cancer, we can achieve reductions in the cancer burden right now by doing what we already know works. Enhanced investment in research that increases our understanding of how to implement the knowledge we have is needed. Our moonshot is right here — ready for the taking.”