Individuals who don't smoke and who maintain a healthy body-mass index (BMI), normal blood pressure and two to four other "ideal" measures of heart health have a 38 percent lower risk of developing cancer, according to research scheduled for presentation Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Fla.
The study authors hope the score they've developed will help doctors drive home the message that prevention is key to both cancer and heart disease.
"Physicians need motivation to really push the issue of prevention with patients," said lead author Laura J. Rasmussen-Torvik, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Other experts agreed.
"If we give patients a double whammy [message], in the ideal world, we might be preventing two of these biggest killers. It might be a stronger message," said Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"People generally know that healthy behaviors prevent heart disease and cancer, but to [relate risk factors such as cholesterol] to cancer is novel," added Dr. Harmony Reynolds, associate director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. "It's very nice to have that crossover in practice. Sometimes I talk to patients about lowering their cholesterol and exercising, and they get very fatalistic saying that, in my family, cancer is the problem. It's very convenient to be able to say these things."
"Ideal" cardiovascular health is one of the American Heart Association's Strategic 2020 Goals, which aim to improve Americans' heart health by 20 percent and reduce deaths from heart disease and stroke by 20 percent.
For this study, researchers followed more than 13,000 healthy individuals for 13 years, measuring seven "metrics" of heart health at the start and tracking any cancer that developed. Those seven factors are: not smoking, normal BMI (a calculation based on weight and height), physical activity, healthy diet, and safe cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels.
Between 1987 and 2006, the participants developed more than 1,800 new cancers, namely prostate, breast, lung and colon. But, the more "ideal" factors people had, the less likely they were to develop cancer.
Compared to people who had none of the seven factors, having just one reduced the risk of cancer by 20 percent. Three factors lowered the risk of cancer by 22 percent, and five to seven pushed the risk down 38 percent.
"If you lower yourself by one point [risk factor], that's a significant decrease in cancer risk and a lower risk of heart disease," said Dr. Christopher Cove, assistant director of the cardiac catheterization lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "That's exciting."
When the researchers looked at the same participants but removed smoking from the measure, the association was no longer significant but the trend was still in the right direction.
"This says that, yes, smoking is really important but we still see the trend when smoking is taken out, so adhering to a healthy diet and having a low BMI are still important for cancer risk," said Rasmussen-Torvik.
The association might have been even clearer had the study had more participants and more cases of cancer, said Reynolds.
It's not clear why these associations exist, but Narula hypothesized they could relate to overall inflammation, which drives both heart disease and cancer.
The study authors said they hope to see more collaboration between the American Heart Association and cancer advocacy groups.
"I think the American public is very confused about conflicting health messages," said Rasmussen-Torvik. "If organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association could work together to emphasize some core prevention goals, that could be beneficial to all groups."
Research presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.