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Preventing Cancer: The Life Course Approach

3 generations of Black Women CookingMany cancers can takes years, even decades, to develop. Research now suggests there are certain times throughout our lives when our diet, activity level, and weight play a heightened role in decreasing – or increasing – the risk of cancer. This area of research is called the life-course approach to cancer prevention, and it’s showing that cancer risk is influenced by growth patterns and life experiences that start early and accumulate throughout life.

Not Just for Grownups

Because cancer is predominately a disease of age – 4 out of 5 cancers are diagnosed in people over age 55 – research has long focused on cancer prevention in adulthood. But now, the science suggests that cancer prevention starts early.

Infants: Babies who are breastfed are less likely to become overweight adults, AICR’s expert report found. Overweight and obesity are causes of seven types of cancer, including colorectal, esophageal and endometrial.

From infancy to adolescence: How tall children grow depends upon both genetic and environmental factors, such as diet, and it may be a sign of increased cancer risk. AICR’s expert report found that tall people carry increased risk for colorectal, breast, pancreatic, and ovarian cancers.

Tallness reflects environmental, hormonal, and nutritional factors that may contribute to cancer risk. Many mechanisms that lead to tallness, such as altered hormone profiles and the age of sexual maturity, may have a role in a person’s cancer risk.

But tall people shouldn’t think their height consigns them to cancer. In fact, knowing that being tall places them at higher risk is all the more reason to take action. For these people, AICR’s advice on diet and physical activity can offer powerful protection.

Adolescence: This emerging area of study has mainly focused on girls and their later, adult breast cancer risk. For girls, studies on adolescent diet and future breast cancer risk have consistently found that alcohol use increases risk. Ongoing studies are investigating how types of fat, vitamins, red meat, physical activity and other lifestyle factors influence future risk for breast and other cancers.

The Young and Older

Mothers: AICR’s expert report found that breastfeeding convincingly lowers a mother’s risk of developing breast cancer throughout her lifetime. It’s possible that breastfeeding lowers the levels of some cancer-related hormones linked with breast cancer or that breastfeeding helps the body get rid of cells in the breast that may have the kind of DNA damage linked to cancer.

AICR recommends that, if possible, it is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months before adding other liquids and foods.

Adult life: One area where research continues to strengthen is that for people of all ages, it’s never too late to decrease the risk of cancer. AICR research shows that approximately one-third of the most common cancers could be avoided by moving more, eating smart and staying lean.

For people over age 50, AICR has launched the It’s Never Too Late campaign offering you strategies and expert advice on healthy aging and cancer prevention.


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