So what does that say about most Americans?  An increasingly large segment of the US population is overweight or obese, and nearly as many admit to being couch potatoes. Convincing evidence shows that weight gain and obesity increases the risk of several different cancers, including colon, prostate and breast cancer. Studies continue to reveal a link between food consumption, exercise, lifestyle choices and health impact. And the latest research suggests eating fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol intake and regular exercise just may lower your risk for cancer. 

In 2010, nearly 1.6 million newly diagnosed cancer cases and more than 500,000 cancer deaths were expected in the US.  Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, exceeded only by cardiovascular disease.  Approximately 1 in every 4 deaths is attributable to cancer.[1]  But nearly 340,000 cancer cases in the United States could be prevented each year by adopting a healthier lifestyle, according to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF)[2].  In addition, a third of cancers can be cured through early detection and treatment. 

What is it about a healthier lifestyle that can help prevent cancer?  New research has uncovered an association between telomere length and cancer risk.  People who have white blood cells (leukocytes) with shorter telomeres may be at a higher risk of developing cancer, especially aggressive cancers that are more likely to kill.  Telomeres are the “shoelace ends” that cap and protect your chromosomes and naturally get shorter as you age.  Researchers measured leukocyte telomere length in 787 individuals who did not have cancer then followed them for ten years.[3]   Those with the shortest telomere length had more than triple the risk of developing cancer, and those in the middle group had twice the risk compared to those with the longest telomere length.  Those in the short telomere group also had a higher risk of dying from their malignancy than those with longer telomeres.

There is a mounting body of evidence linking short telomeres to a higher risk for a variety of cancers.  Studies have found shortened telomeres in breast cancer cells[4], bladder cancer cells[5], oral cavity cells[6] and colon cancer cells[7].  An Italian study found that individuals with the longest telomeres were ten times less likely to develop cancer than those with shorter telomeres.[8]

How does that fit in with a healthy lifestyle?  Following a Mediterranean diet can significantly reduce cancer risk.  A study published last year showed that by eating five servings of fruits and vegetables you could reduce your cancer risk by 6-11%.[9]   Eating a plant based diet has been shown to increase the activity of telomerase, the enzyme that repairs and rebuilds telomeres by 30%, resulting in improved telomere maintenance.[10]  

Regular vigorous exercise also activates the telomerase enzyme.[11]  Not surprisingly, exercise has been shown to reduce cancer risk and cancer mortality in men and women.

Women who engaged in more than 7 hours per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise for the last 10 years were 16% less likely to develop breast cancer than those who were inactive.[12] And vigorous exercise for 20 minutes per day, 5 day per week significantly reduced the risk of fatal prostate cancer in men[13]

Obesity carries an enhanced risk for numerous cancers and obese adults have shorter telomeres than their normal-weight counterparts.[14]  We have known for decades that smoking increases your risk for cancer.  We now know that smoking accelerates telomere shortening.[15]  In fact, obesity and smoking are states of heightened oxidative stress, which increases the rate of telomere erosion per replication, and increases inflammation.[16]

Besides exercising, eating better and maintaining a healthy body weight, vitamin supplements offer additional protection for your telomeres. Daily intake of vitamin D in the 4000 – 8000 IU range was associated with a substantial reduction in the risk for breast cancer, colon cancer, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.[17]  Higher blood levels of vitamin D are associated with longer telomeres.[18]  Resveratrol[19] and just taking a multivitamin resulted in longer telomeres in women.[20]

You have the power to alter your biological aging clock by the choices you make in how you eat and live.  The same choices will lower your risk of most chronic diseases, including cancer.  Isn’t this what we call a “no-brainer”?  


[2] World Cancer Research Fund. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective (2007)

[3] Willeitt P, Willeitt J, et al. Telomere length and risk of incident cancer and cancer mortality. JAMA, July 7, 2010—Vol 304, No. 1

[4] Gammon S, Wang T, et al. Telomere length, oxidative damage, antioxidants and breast cancer risk. Int J Cancer. 2009 Apr 1;124(7):1637-43

[5] McGrath M, et al. Telomere length, cigarette smoking and bladder cancer risk in men and women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. April 2007; 16(4): 815-9

[6] Aida J, et al. Telomere lengths in the oral epithelia with and without carcinoma. Eur J Cancer. Jan 2010; 46(2): 430-2

[7] Rampazzo E, et al. Relationship between telomere shortening, genetic instability and site of tumor origin in colorectal cancers. Br J Cancer, Apr 13, 2010; 102(8):1300-5

[8] Armanios M, Adler J, et al. “Short telomeres are sufficient to cause the degenerative defects associated with aging. Am J Hum Genet, 2009 Dec 11; 85(6): 823-32

[9] Bofetta P, et al. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Overall Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2010) 102 (8): 529-537. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djq072

[10] Ornish D, Lin J, et al.  Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2008;9(11): 1048-1057

[11] Physical Exercise Prevents Cellular Senescence in Circulating Leukocytes and in the Vessel Wall.  Circulation 2009 Nov 30.

[12] National Institutes of Health – AARP Diet and Health Study, 2008

[13] National Institutes of Health – AARP Diet and Health Study, 2008

[14] Zannolli R, Mohn A, et al. Telomere length and obesity. Acta Paediatr, 2008 July;97(7):952-4

[15] Eur Respir J 2006; 27:525-528

[16] Lancet, 2005 Aug 20-26;366(9486):662-4.

[17] 1.Cedric F. Garland, Christine B. French, Leo L. Baggerly, Robert P. Heaney. Vitamin D Supplement Doses and Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D in the Range Associated with Cancer Prevention. Anticancer Research, 2011; 31: 607-612

[18] Richards Jb, et al. Higher concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women. Journal of Clinical Nutrition Nov 2007; 86(5):1420-25

[19] Xia L, et al. Resveratrol reduces endothelial progenitor cells senescence through augmentation of telomerase activity by Akt-dependent mechanisms. British J Pharm. Jan 29,2009; 155(3): 387-394

[20] Qun Xu, et al. Multivitamin use and telomere length in women. Am J Clin Nutr March 11, 2009