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Bad lifestyle factors: the leading cause of cancer deaths in Brazil, state scientists

Cancer is a multifactorial disease and one of the main causes of death in Brazil. The World Health Organization (WHO) expects the number of cancer cases in Brazil to rise by 50% by 2025, owing mainly to population growth and the aging population. Lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, overweight and obesity, unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity are associated with a third of all deaths caused by 20 types of cancer in this country, according to a new epidemiological study. Published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, the study shows that lifestyle risk factors account for 114,497 annual cases of cancer in Brazil, which represents 27% of all cancer cases, and 63,000 deaths, or 34% of cancer mortality. The study was conducted by researchers from the Preventive Medicine Department of the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FM-USP) and the Harvard School of Public Health in the United States, with support from São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). The team concluded that the number of oropharyngeal, esophageal, laryngeal, lung and colorectal cancer cases could be at least halved by eliminating these lifestyle risk factors (smoking, alcohol consumption, overweight, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity). According to the new study, however, in addition to changes in population structure, the increasing prevalence of lifestyle risk factors may pose additional challenges for controlling the cancer rate in Brazil.

There is a consensus in the scientific literature that the five lifestyle factors in question are associated with an increased risk for 20 types of cancer. The researchers calculated a metric for the preventability of cancer, known as the potential impact fraction (PIF); this metric is based on the population attributable fraction (PAF) and estimates the proportional reduction in cancer cases and deaths that would occur, if exposure to the five lifestyle factors was reduced to a level that corresponds to an ideal exposure scenario. Diet was subdivided into fruits, vegetables, fiber, calcium, red meat and processed meat. The researchers used data from Brazil’s National Statistics Office and Census Bureau (IBGE) National Health Survey of 2013, to estimate the prevalence of alcohol consumption, fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity and smoking (active and passive) as well as body mass index (BMI). Researchers also used IBGE’s 2008-09 Household Budget Survey to obtain data on the dietary consumption of fiber, calcium, and red and processed meat. Scientists performed several statistical analyses to rank the correlations between the five lifestyle risk factors and cancer in Brazil. Smoking was responsible for 67,000 cancer cases and 40,000 cancer deaths per year, accounting for most of the preventable deaths, followed by a high BMI (21,000 cases and 13,000 deaths).

This is closely linked to unhealthy diet and lack of exercise and alcohol consumption (16,000 cases and 9,000 deaths). In addition, the researchers estimated the distribution of lifestyle risk factors by gender and age group, considering two exposure scenarios: one with a theoretical minimum risk exposure, assuming that the lifestyle risk factors were eliminated in the entire population, and the other with what they termed a plausible reduction in exposure based on policy targets and cancer prevention recommendations. This plausible scenario would include a 10% reduction in alcohol consumption to less than 50g per day, a mean BMI reduction of 1kg per square meter at the population level, dietary calcium consumption of at least 200-399 mg per day, and a 30% reduction in tobacco use. Under the plausible scenario for lifestyle risk reduction, 4.5% of all cancer cases (19,731 cases) and 6.1% of deaths from the disease (11,480 deaths) could have been avoided. Finally, a breakdown by gender showed that smoking affected men (20.8%) more than the sum of overweight, lack of exercise, alcohol and unhealthy diet (14.2%), whereas for women, the sum of these four factors accounted for a higher proportion of preventable cases (15.2%) than smoking alone (10.1%).

Dr. Leandro Rezende, a coauthor of the study, has been straightforward: “Primary cancer prevention by means of lifestyle changes is one of the most attractive and realistic approaches to cancer control in Brazil. The most striking finding is the proportion of cases that could be avoided by combating lifestyle risk factors. According to several previous studies in this area, no other measure could prevent so many cases. Reducing unhealthy habits rather than eliminating them completely is more plausible as far as public health policy is concerned. A significant number of cancer cases and deaths can be avoided just by encouraging healthier habits in accordance with cancer prevention recommendations. The difference between men and women can be explained mainly by the higher prevalence of smoking among men in Brazil. However, women are also more affected by other factors. They get less exercise and tend to be more overweight than men. Our data should serve as a basis for the formulation of public policy to prevent cancer in Brazil”.

  • Edited by Dr. GIanfrancesco Cormaci, PhD, specialist in Clinical Biochemistry.

Scientific references

Vale DB, Filho CC et al. BMC Cancer. 2019 May 10;19(1):432

Rezende LFM et al. Cancer Epidemiol. 2019 Apr; 59:148-157.

Lee DH, Rezende LFM et al. Internat J Cancer 2019 Jan 7. 

Rezende LFM et al. Cancer Epidemiol. 2018 Oct; 56:38-45. 

Dott. Gianfrancesco Cormaci
- Laurea in Medicina e Chirurgia nel 1998 (MD Degree in 1998) - Specialista in Biochimica Clinica nel 2002 (Clinical Biochemistry residency in 2002) - Dottorato in Neurobiologia nel 2006 (Neurobiology PhD in 2006) - Ha soggiornato negli Stati Uniti, Baltimora (MD) come ricercatore alle dipendenze del National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA/NIH) e poi alla Johns Hopkins University, dal 2004 al 2008. - Dal 2009 si occupa di Medicina personalizzata. - Guardia medica presso strutture private dal 2010 - Detentore di due brevetti sulla preparazione di prodotti gluten-free a partire da regolare farina di frumento immunologicamente neutralizzata (owner of patents concerning the production of bakery gluten-free products, starting from regular wheat flour). - Responsabile del reparto Ricerca e Sviluppo per la società CoFood s.r.l. (leader of the R&D for the partnership CoFood s.r.l.) - Autore di un libro riguardante la salute e l'alimentazione, con approfondimenti su come questa condizioni tutti i sistemi corporei. - Autore di articoli su informazione medica e salute sui siti web salutesicilia.com, medicomunicare.it e in lingua inglese sul sito www.medicomunicare.com
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