Nearly Half of All Cancer Deaths May Be Linked to Preventable Risk Factors, Study Finds

A new study suggests millions of cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes and avoiding smoking.

While advances in scientific and medical research have identified many cancer-causing agents that should be avoided, new research indicates that preventable risk factors still account for nearly half of all cancer-related deaths.

In findings published this month in the medical journal Lancet, researchers suggest that smoking, alcohol abuse and obesity accounted for approximately 44% of all cancer deaths worldwide, and these could be avoided with lifestyle changes.

While the rate of dying from cancer has decreased overall, due to early detection methods, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports new cancer diagnosis rates are on the rise in the United States, with over 1.7 million new cancers diagnosed in 2019 alone.

Preventable Cancer Risk Factors Are On the Rise

In this new study, researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington analyzed data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2019, focusing on the relationship between risk factors and cancer.

Researchers estimated the cancer rates that can be attributed to behavioral, environmental, occupational and metabolic risk factors in 204 countries, including a review of 23 cancer types and 34 risk factors.

The risk factors included in this analysis accounted for 4.45 million deaths and 105 million disability adjusted life-years (DALYs) for both males and females. The data accounted for 44% of all cancer deaths and 42% of all DALYs.

There were 2.88 million risk-attributable cancer deaths in males and 1.58 million risk-attributable cancer deaths in females during the study period. The leading cancers in 2019 globally were tracheal, bronchus, and lung cancers for both men and women.

But cancers linked to preventable risk factors were found to be on the rise, increasing by 20% from 2010 to 2019. DALYs increased by 17% during the same time. Risk attributable cancers were linked to smoking, unsafe sex, and alcohol use. Other risk factors included having a high body mass index, or obesity.

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A large proportion of the cancer risk is linked to preventable risk factors. As a result, researchers indicate that interventions focused on modifying behavior could lead to millions of lives saved, especially if the use of tobacco is reduced.

Over the past 65 years big steps have been made to reduce tobacco use. Although tobacco use in the US is less than other countries, tobacco-related deaths remain a significant problem.

Additionally, interventions focused on reducing alcohol use and treating alcohol use disorder can help reduce risk. Additionally, access to vaccinations that prevent cancer-causing infections, including hepatitis B and HPV are necessary to help reduce the risk of cancer linked to unsafe sex.

Furthermore, disease linked to obesity and higher body mass index can also be prevented with interventions focused on healthy food, exercise and weight reduction, to reduce conditions linked to high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

This is the largest study so far to determine the global burden of cancer attributable to risk factors, and regions with highest risk are Europe, east Asia, North America, southern Latin America, and western Europe.

“The leading risk factors contributing to global cancer burden in 2019 were behavioral, whereas metabolic risk factors saw the largest increases between 2010 and 2019,” wrote study authors. “Reducing exposure to these modifiable risk factors would decrease cancer mortality and DALY rates worldwide, and policies should be tailored appropriately to local cancer risk factor burden.”


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