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Thursday January 23, 2014

RICHARD BÉLIVEAU’S COLUMN Healthy Aging – Preventing Cancer

Healthy Aging – Preventing Cancer

Cancer is not a disease that appears suddenly, out of the blue. For years, or even decades, normal cells accumulate a series of genetic mutations that modify their functions and give them enough strength to grow and start invading the body. The high incidence of new cancers later in life is thus mainly caused by the long amount of time required by cells to accumulate a series of mutations.

Different scientific observations, however, suggest that these genetic mutations are not the only reason why the elderly have a greater risk of developing cancers.  For example, a high number of mutations appear throughout our development – in this sense, once our body has finished growing at the start of our adult life, the majority of these oncogenic mutations are already present in our body.  As such, studies have shown that a third of women in their forties already have small tumors in their breasts; in men, almost 40% of men in their forties have tumors in their prostate. However, a much smaller percentage of the population (between 10-15%) will develop one of these cancers, even in their old age. In other words, the increase in cancer with age cannot solely be explained by the accumulation of mutations in our cells as we get older.

 The environment in which abnormal cells are trying to grow is usually highly resistant to tumor growth. Our living habits can have a significant impact on this environment, thus making it more prone to allow the growth of abnormal cells. Unhealthy habits such as tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, excess weight or the lack of physical activity all have a common characteristic: they promote inflammation in our cellular environment, a condition that help abnormal cells acquire cancer-like properties. As we age, the impact created by these bad habits becomes increasingly significant – this fact, combined to the weakening of our normal defense mechanisms, increase the chance for abnormal cells to overcome these defenses and grow into a mature cancer.

 Even though the disease is more frequently seen in seniors, cancer is not a normal consequence of the aging process. But to be able to prevent this disease, it is crucial that your natural defenses be strengthened as much as possible, namely by minimizing the development of chronic inflammation. A healthy diet rich in plant foods and lower in sugar-rich foods and harmful fats, the regular practice of physical activity, and maintaining a healthy body weight are all efficient strategies to live well longer and cancer-free. 

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