To what degree are the leading causes of death preventable with healthy lifestyle behaviors?

As I write in my book, five of the six leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, and diabetes—are potentially preventable with healthy lifestyle behaviors (the exception, of course, is accidents—fifth of the six leading causes of death).

Cancer is a special case. It is not always a preventable disease. All cancers combined is the second leading cause of death in this country. Some forms of cancer are preventable, and many forms can be detected early enough to be cured. Lifestyle behaviors cause many cancers. It’s those kinds of cancer we talk about in this book. For example, we know cigarette smoking causes 90 percent of lung cancers and it increases the risk for a number of other cancers, too. Alcoholic intake increases the risk of oral, esophageal, and oropharyngeal cancers. Smoking and alcohol used together increases the risk even more. High fat diets, and not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and fiber contribute to the development of some cancers. Obesity and lack of exercise seem to contribute to the development of others. Family history plays a big role, too, and that is not a controllable risk factor. Environmental factors (both those we know about and those we don’t) play a role in the development of cancer, too. We are only beginning to understand the extent to which toxins (or poisons) in our environment are increasing the occurrence of cancers. Cancer is caused by a variety of factors and we are still learning about many of them. Having risk factors does not mean you will get cancer. Conversely, not having risk factors does not mean you won’t.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America and stroke is number three (and it is the number one cause of disability). These catastrophic events are caused by a process called atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries.“ This is the build up of plaque over years and years in the blood vessels of the body. Atherosclerosis is accelerated by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, excess weight, poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, diabetes, and in some people, their family history. This book is about learning which of the risks above you have and then making a plan to reduce them with your behaviors (and medications if necessary). Imagine a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. If you learn your risks and reduce them you snip off the fuse and the dynamite can’t explode. Your behaviors will have prevented a catastrophic event from occurring.

Diabetes is epidemic in this country because of our poor eating habits, excess weight, and lack of exercise. Uncontrolled diabetes has very bad effects on blood vessels and nerves. It is considered a “cardiovascular risk equivalent,“ which means if you have diabetes you have the same risk as someone who has already had a heart attack or stroke. Blood sugar, weight, diet, and exercise are all things you can control with your behaviors.

Lung disease is caused overwhelmingly by smoking. A very small minority of people who develop emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or lung cancer suffered environmental exposures; the overwhelming majority have been smokers or had long term exposure to second hand smoke.

<< back to FAQ