Nearly 40 percent of people in the US will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lives. Although the disease can occur at any age, advancing age is the biggest risk factor for cancer in general, and for some types of cancer in particular. Colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer are often diagnosed in people who are in their 60s and 70s.

Cancer is a largely preventable disease. Only about 5-10 percent of cases are due to genetic factors, while the rest are the result of environmental factors, including smoking, obesity, a poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. Because cancer is the result of cellular mutations that can take decades to accrue, it’s important to adopt healthy habits early in life. The earlier you start making healthy choices, the better — adopting healthy habits in your 20s can help you avoid cancer in your 50s and 60s. But even if you’re already middle-aged or older, making healthy changes now can greatly reduce your risk of age-related disease.

Follow these tips for reducing your risk of cancer and other degenerative diseases:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight is linked to at least 13 types of cancer, which together account for 42 percent of new cancer diagnoses. This makes obesity the number-one environmental risk factor for cancer — even more of a risk than smoking. Obesity is associated with metabolic abnormalities and hormone imbalances, as well as chronic inflammation, which may help explain its link to cancer. Women especially should watch their weight, as the strongest association between obesity and cancer occurs with uterine cancer and postmenopausal breast cancer. For some types of cancer, the more excess weight a person carries, the greater the risk.
  2. Stop smoking. It’s no secret that smoking and use of other tobacco products is linked to cancer. Eighty-seven percent of lung cancer deaths in men and 70 percent of lung cancer deaths in women can be attributed to smoking. Carcinogens in cigarettes cause DNA damage in lung cells, leading to a buildup of damage that causes cancer. If you smoke, take steps to stop immediately.
  3. Limit consumption of protein and processed meats. Studies suggest a link between high protein consumption and cancer risk. A 2014 study found that older adults who ate a diet high in animal protein were four times more likely to die of cancer than those who ate fewer animal products. The same link between protein and cancer did not exist among participants who primarily ate plant-based protein. Processed meats in particular — such as hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats — have been classified as carcinogenic, and cooking meats at high temperatures or charring them also increases the formation of compounds that increase the risk of cancer. To reduce your risk, focus your diet on plant-based foods, including plant-based proteins, such as beans and quinoa.
  4. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Plant foods are full of beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols that help combat free radicals, which play a role in the development of cancer. Polyphenols also fight inflammation, protect against cognitive decline, and may increase lifespan.
  5. Limit alcohol consumption. Drinking red wine in moderation may have health benefits, but limit yourself to 1-2 glasses per day. Acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol metabolism, is carcinogenic. Individuals who experience alcohol flush should avoid alcohol, since they have an impaired ability to break down acetaldehyde.

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