Lifestyle tips the scale in the battle over bowel cancer

A UNSW study shows that a large proportion of bowel-cancer cases in Australia are preventable with the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, particularly for men.

A study by researchers from UNSW’s Centre for Big Data Research in Health has found that current rates of smoking, overweight and obesity and excessive alcohol consumption could lead to 45,000 cases of bowel cancer over the next 10 years.

The results, published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum, have implications for public-health education, promotion and policy.

In the study, the team pooled data from seven Australian cohort studies, encompassing nearly 370,000 people aged 18 years and over.

“We carefully looked at factors causally associated with developing bowel cancer and their current distribution in the Australian population,” UNSW Associate Professor Claire Vajdic said. “We then explored what this means for the future bowel-cancer burden in Australia and where we should be targeting our health-promotion efforts.”

The researchers found that 11 per cent of the future bowel-cancer burden can be attributed to ever smoking, and four per cent to current smoking. Overweight or obesity was responsible for 11 per cent of cases, and excessive alcohol consumption contributed six per cent of the burden.

“Combined, these factors will be responsible for one in four future bowel cancers – even more so for men (37 per cent of bowel cancers) than women (13 per cent),” Professor Vajdic said.

“If people changed their behaviours accordingly, a large proportion of this future burden could be avoided.”

The study was the first to identify subgroups within the population with the highest burden.

“We found that more bowel cancers were caused by overweight or obesity and excessive alcohol consumption in men than in women,” Professor Vajdic said.

These patterns were due to differences in the prevalence of these lifestyles – both factors are more common in men – and the strength of the association between the lifestyle factors and bowel-cancer risk.

“Hormones and differences in body-fat distribution, particularly excessive fat around the stomach, likely contribute to the higher body fatness-related risk in men,” Professor Vajdic said. “We also know that men drink more alcohol than women, which increases their bowel cancer risk.”

The researchers said the results could obviously also be translated into several health recommendations.