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Top 10 Things to Know: Lifestyle Factors and Chronic Disease

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Sometimes, you don’t have time to read long emails, and you just want the bullet points about what’s really important. Here’s a list of 10 important things you can do to decrease your risk of chronic diseases like cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

  1. Adopt an “anti-inflammatory diet,” low in red meat, sugar, processed foods, and dairy products, and high in foods that fight inflammation, like the ones included in this month’s list of 30. Chronic inflammation as a general “state” in the body—different from the temporary swelling around a minor cut—has been linked to many conditions, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, liver disease, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
  2. Eat fewer calories AND exercise more to maintain a healthy weight. For many people, both of those approaches are needed for effective weight loss or weight maintenance. Excess body weight is linked to increased risk of several cancers, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and arthritis. Check with your doctor before starting a new eating and/or exercise program.
  3. Exercise as often and as vigorously as you can, within the bounds of safety for your personal physical fitness level. While there is no magical prescription for longevity and good health, exercise comes close. Among men with prostate cancer, several studies have shown that faster-paced walking or vigorous exercise significantly reduced the risk of prostate cancer recurrence or prostate cancer death (respectively), compared with less intense or slower-paced exercise. But as researchers continue to study the effects of exercise, we’re learning that you don’t have to do punishing daily Cross-Fit workouts to see benefits. That famous 10,000 steps-per-day goal has no clear scientific basis; in fact, a large study of older women showed reduced risk of death with as few as 4,400 daily steps (a little over 2 miles), with increasing benefit up to 7,500 steps.
  4. Eat more fish—evidence from several studies suggest that fish may lower the risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s because they have “good fat,” particularly omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s may also benefit people with Type 2 diabetes. Watch out for high levels of mercury in larger, deep-ocean fish such as shark and swordfish. Women who are pregnant or nursing, and children should be especially careful.
  5. Cook with extra virgin olive oil. 20 years ago, the dominant dietary “prescription” was that all fats were bad. Now we know that trans fats (in, for example, margarine, microwave popcorn, and packaged baked goods) are the ones to avoid. For EVOO, consider 1-3 tablespoons per day, depending on your size. Make sure you use the first pressed “extra virgin” oil: it contains more polyphenols, natural compounds with a broad spectrum of potential anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and other health-promoting effects.
  6. Incorporate cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower) into many of your weekly meals. They contain compounds called glucosinolates that have anti-cancer properties: they promote cellular excretion of mutation-causing carcinogens, aid with anti-oxidation, and arrest cancer cell growth.
  7. Enjoy coffee, if you drink it. A recent study of adults in the US found that coffee drinking (1 or more cups per day) was linked to lower risk of death during the study follow-up period. We don’t currently think it’s the caffeine that provides the health benefits, so feel free to enjoy a cup of decaf in the afternoon if you like.
  8. Avoid smoking for many reasons. Smoking accounts for 19% of cancer cases, across multiple cancer types, including lung, oral cavity, larynx, and esophagus. Smoking causes lung disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and triggers asthma. If you don’t smoke, but live with someone who does, support them in quitting. Secondhand smoke can damage health, too.
  9. Drink alcohol in moderation. Moderate alcohol use has been linked to decreased risk heart disease and stroke, but with increased risk of breast and other cancers, and a recent recommendation from a federal committee on new US dietary guidelines states that men should limit drinks to one per day (vs the previous limit of two). If you do drink, try one glass of red wine per day. Red wine contains resveratrol, which has been shown to possibly have cancer-fighting properties.
  10. Relax and enjoy life. Studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol can interfere with cancer cell death. Elevated stress is linked to several disorders including depression, anxiety, sleep problems, weight gain, digestive issues, and heart disease. The good news? There are effective interventions to help reduce stress. These days, with so much additional uncertainty and hardship caused by COVID-19, finding a strategy that works for you is all the more important. If you need more help, talk to your doctor.