Medical Technology

Lifestyle Choices Can Influence Genetic Risks for Cancer

Key Takeaway

  • A healthy lifestyle — which includes physical activity, a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetable but not red and processed meats, alcohol, or tobacco — may offset genetic risks for five cancers.

  • An unhealthy lifestyle, however, can increase overall cancer risk and the risk of eight cancer types

Why This Matters

Study Design

  • Almost 200,000 people in the UK Biobank were surveyed about their lifestyle habits between 2006 and 2010.

  • Their baseline genetic risks for various tumors were assessed using Biobank data, and participants were checked for new-onset tumors through 2019.

Key Results

  • Unhealthy habits increased the overall risk of cancer 32%.

  • Unhealthy habits increased the risk of eight cancer types: lung cancer (hazard ratio [HR], 3.5), bladder cancer (HR, 2.03), pancreatic cancer (HR, 1.98), kidney cancer (HR, 1.91), pharyngeal cancer (HR, 1.69), uterine cancer (HR, 1.63), colorectal cancer (HR, 1.42), and breast cancer (HR, 1.42).

  • Healthy lifestyles didn’t decrease the risk of melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, ovarian cancer, or lymphocytic leukemia.

  • The authors say their findings also suggest that “a healthy lifestyle may be of greater benefit in those with a high genetic susceptibility to colorectal, breast, and pancreatic cancers, and may completely offset genetic risk for lung and bladder cancers.”


  • Habits were self-reported.

  • Only adults of European ancestry were included.

  • The median follow-up was 10.2 years, which is likely too short to assess the true incidence of new cancers.

  • Genetic risk assessment was based solely on single-nucleotide polymorphisms and thus was incomplete.


This is a summary of a preprint research report led by Stephanie Byrne of the University of South Australia, Adelaide. The full text can be found at

M. Alexander Otto is a physician assistant with a master’s degree in medical science. He is an award-winning medical journalist who worked for several major news outlets before joining Medscape and is an MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow. Email: [email protected].

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