Preventable risk factors cause 50% of cancer deaths globally

Preventable risk factors, including smoking and drinking alcohol, are the main cause of approximately 50% of cancer deaths, says a new study.

A large-scale study published last week in The Lancet shows that three of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths were smoking, drinking alcohol, and obesity (high body-mass index), contributing to at least 4.5 million deaths in 2019.

According to Nature, over 30% of cancer deaths in women and 50% of all cancer deaths in men in 2019 were attributable to avoidable risk factors including drinking too much alcohol and smoking cigarettes, eating poorly, engaging in risky sex, and being exposed to asbestos at work.

Obesity accounted for the biggest percentage of the rise between 2010 and 2019, especially in lower-income countries, accounting for roughly 20% of the increase in cancer deaths worldwide.

“Deaths caused by cancer and risk-attributable deaths caused by cancer tended to be greater in males than females for leading causes of cancer death globally, with the exception of cancer types that occur predominantly in women (e.g. breast) or are exclusively estimated in women in the GBD study (e.g. cervical, ovarian, and uterine cancers,” the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) shows.

The importance of HPV vaccination

Certain infections and exposure to UV light are two other established cancer risk factors that were left out of the research. The human papillomavirus (HPV) and other sexually transmitted viruses were employed as a proxy by the researchers for “unsafe sex”-related cancer risks. In sub-Saharan Africa, cervical cancer—which is brought on by certain HPV strains—is the most common malignancy among women.

“A huge part of cancer incidence and mortality in women could be decreased by timely HPV vaccination,” claims Rudolf Kaaks, a cancer epidemiologist at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

Once they gather more knowledge, for instance, regarding levels of exposure to those variables, the researchers may incorporate risk factors including infections and exposure to UV radiation in future assessments, according to co-author Jonathan Kocarnik, who models global cancer burden at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

In addition, Kocarnik says that “potential changes in risk-factor exposures and the impact on future cancer burden will likely take many years to comprehensively understand.”

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