What would you give for an extra ten years of healthy life? A recent BMJ study showed that sticking to just five healthy habits in middle age – not smoking, regularly exercising, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, and limiting alcohol – can earn you an extra ten years of disease free life. This is especially significant given that we are all living longer – but often that longer life is accompanied by one or more chronic health conditions.

This latest study further confirms our own research at World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) that having a healthy lifestyle lowers the risk of cancer and other diseases. Our research also shows that being overweight or obese strongly increases the risk of at least 12 different cancers. 

Tackling our unhealthy environments 

Since overweight and obesity are so strongly linked to cancer risk, tackling this will lead to very significant health gains, especially since it also means addressing hand-in-hand diet and physical activity. Of course, people have responsibility for their own health but all too often they live in environments that actively work against making healthy choices. Governments have a critical role to play and must take bold, positive steps to protect people’s health by making our daily environments healthier. There are many options available to governments, including regulating junk food advertising, subsidies on healthy food to make them more affordable, and better urban design that encourages walking and cycling over driving.

Scotland takes the leap

Exciting steps are being taken close to home – Scotland is the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol in an effort to reduce consumption. A year in, the signs look positive, with a 3.6 per cent reduction in the volume of alcohol sold since 2017.  Further afield, Mexico has pioneered the use of a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax, with Mexicans drinking 12 per cent less sugary drinks than in the year before the introduction of the new tax. This was a tipping point for global action, with other countries such as the UK, Ireland, Malaysia and Chile following suit and implementing SSB taxes. So we do have emerging evidence of how governments can take positive action to improve diets and the food environment. 

However, while there is progress, much needs to be done if we are to meet the collective promises of the Sustainable Development Goals to reduce a third of all premature mortality from cancer and other non-communicable diseases by 2030. This World Cancer Day it’s more important than ever that we all work together to share and implement what we know about cancer prevention, to ensure everyone has the chance to live a longer, healthier, life.

Dr Kate Allen Executive Director, Science & Public Affairs

World Cancer Research Fund International