Does the title of this post lead you to think that there's one simple thing you can do to prevent cancer and keep your bones strong as you grow old?
Sorry about that. It's actually two different "secrets"--the reason they're crammed together in one post is that I was reading the New York Times health section, and these two articles about preventing cancer and building healthy bones both caught my attention.
Note: whenever I discuss health articles from the New York Times, sensitive readers should be warned--there will likely be cursing involved.
Because while the New York Times is a great source for news, I hate their health section. They're the ones, remember, who said exercise won't keep you healthy. And their writers seem to revel in casting doubt on my long-held beliefs about the rewards of proper nutrition and plenty of exercise.
If the New York Times were my only news source, I'd be on a cupcake, cheeseburger, and champagne diet by now, and the only exercise I'd get would be scratching my head over their crossword puzzles. Sometimes the studies they cite are convincing; other times they seem to ignore tons of contrary research in order to take a controversial stand and get people riled up. Either way, I find it annoying to have to rethink things all the time. I have a tiny brain and it gets tired easily.
So wanna know what surprises they had in store about preventing cancer and building bones?
Preventing Cancer: Forget Healthy Living
Yep--they say that eating less fat and lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grain fiber, losing weight, and getting lots of exercise won't really do much to prevent cancer. In terms of healthy living, the only lifestyle choice things they had good things to say about were quitting smoking and, if you're a woman, steering clear of estrogen after menopause. (Well, I imagine if you're a guy you should steer clear of it too).
The fruits and vegetable thing took me by surprise, and elicited the most cursing. I'm certain I've read a number of studies saying that whole grain fiber and fruits and vegetables help prevent cancer. The fiber clears out your digestive system, and the produce is full of all those nifty little antioxidants that will clean up evil free radicals that contribute to cancer. Right?
Well, turns out it's not just the New York Times--everyone seems to be backing down on the diet and cancer connection. As to the ability of antioxidants in fruit and vegetables to prevent cancer--the clinical results now look "inconclusive," according to The National Cancer Institute. Likewise, the Harvard School of Public Health says you should eat your fruits and veggies, but mainly because they're good for heart disease, blood pressure, vision, and gastrointestinal problems like constipation or irritable bowel. As to cancer, "data from cohort studies have not consistently shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables prevents cancer in general."
What can prevent certain kinds of cancer? Medicines!
According to the article, a generic drug, finasteride, costing about $2 a day, could prevent as many as 50,000 cases of prostate cancer a year. A related drug, dutasteride, (about $3.50 a day), has the same effect.
Likewise, according to the Times, studies have found that taking tamoxifen or raloxifene could cut breast cancer by 50% among high-risk women. Most side effects of the drugs, like hot flashes, were temporary. There was a very slightly increased risk of blood clots and uterine cancer with tamoxifen, but with raloxifene there was no excess uterine cancer, and the clotting risk was 30 percent less than tamoxifen.
Even better, women did not have to take the drug for a lifetime — just five years. And they said the cost for tamoxifen runs about 30 cents a day; raloxifene is $3.30 a day.
So why would doctors and high-risk patients not be jumping all over this to try to prevent cancer? Well, the Times interviewed Dr. Therese B. Bevers, a medical director at a Cancer Prevention Center. She believes that doctors don't want to take the first step — calculating a woman’s lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. Why not? Because that might lead to the next step: "spending an hour or so discussing cancer risk and drug risks and benefits."
An hour or so? Really? When was the last time your doctor spent an hour or so explaining anything? I can't believe doctors can't figure out how to give a brief overview of options in a much shorter time than that. And if it would prevent so many more cases of breast cancer, wouldn't the time be worth it?
Apparently the drugs are a good idea if your lifetime odds exceed 20 percent. (They use the example of a 55-year-old woman who began menstruating early had her first child late, and whose mother and sister got breast cancer. There's an assessment tool here, though they warn you it's designed for medical professionals.)
Equally puzzling, though, is the reaction of high risk patients when doctors do discuss the drug option. According to Bevers, about half the time they turn them down. “The Number one reason I hear is, ‘Oh, I just don’t like to take medications."
Personally, if my risk of breast cancer were calculated to be significantly higher than nomal? I think I'd give the medication a shot.
But no matter what the New York Times says, I'm not entirely giving up on the idea that my bok choy and blueberries and cardio are gonna help me out too.
How to Prevent Bone Loss? Jump!
So the article on exercise and bone loss starts with a disconcerting statistic: a year after fracturing a hip, about one in five people over age 65 will die.
Yikes! I guess I'd really rather not fracture my hip when I'm older.
There is more depressing news, too: a lot of the exercise people used to think would help isn't doing much to build bone density. You need “large forces released in a relatively big burst.” Apparently weight lifting isn’t explosive enough for most people, nor is swimming or cycling. Running can be, although it doesn't work for everyone. Brisk walking helped bone density in older women, but "it must be truly brisk."
What works, they suggest, is jumping--if your bones are strong enough to begin with. “You probably don’t need to do a lot either.” But this recommendation came from... you guessed it. A study of mice.
Oh wait, not that kind of mice...
It seems that in a Japanese study, mice jumped 40 times a week for 24 weeks and built up bone density, and maintained it by jumping 20 or 30 times a week. (I did not allow myself to discover how they got the mice to jump...I hate animal research and think we should do a lot less of it.)
Anyway, six jumps a day, then down to three or four. Sure, I could add that to my exercise to-do list. And maybe I will someday, if I became convinced that I'm one of those people for whom running doesn't work, and I decide I really need to start jumping too to build my bones.
But just because it worked for mice? At this point, I'm not exactly jumping to any conclusions about humans.
So would you take prescription drugs to prevent breast or prostate cancer if you were high risk? Would you jump up and down like a Japanese mouse to build your bone density?