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Only 3% of Americans know that being overweight increases cancer risk 


It’s been well-documented that being overweight and a lack of exercise increases your overall risk of cancer.

However, a new study has found that only three percent of Americans are aware of that.

The researchers from Washington University say they were surprised by their findings because the majority of Americans they interviewed were able to identify metabolic disorders and heart disease as illnesses that are caused by being overweight. 

The team says its study shows that public health campaigns that discuss the benefits of exercise need to make more of an effort to highlight how you reduce your cancer risk by engaging in physical activity.

A new study has found that only three percent of Americans are aware that being obese increases the risk of several cancers (file image)

A new study has found that only three percent of Americans are aware that being obese increases the risk of several cancers (file image)

Several studies have examined why being overweight or obese could lead to an increased risk of cancer.

One 2016 study from Tulane University found that obese adults have chronic inflammation, which raises cancer risk.   

And a 2011 study from the Breast Cancer Collaborative Group found that women who have higher estrogen levels have an increased risk of breast cancer.

This is because fat tissues produce high amounts of estrogen, which can drive up the risk of the disease.

For the current study, the team surveyed more than 1,100 US adults between ages 18 and 64.

The majority of them came from ‘socio-demographically disadvantaged groups’, which the authors identified as people with little formal education who have a minority racial or ethnic ancestry.’

‘We thought there could potentially be differences in knowledge between these groups so that’s why we over-sampled,’ lead author Dr Erika Waters, an associate professor of surgery at Washington University, told Daily Mail Online. 

Researchers then asked the group to write down three answers to the question: ‘What types of diseases are caused by insufficient levels of exercise?’

They found that the majority of the adults were able to identify that little exercise was associated with an increased risk of metabolic diseases and cardiovascular diseases, with 65.8 percent and 63.5 percent, respectively, writing this as one of their answers.

However, just 3.4 percent of participants wrote that lack of physical activity led to an increased risk of cancer.

‘I did think it would be low but I did not think it would be that low,’ Dr Waters said of the number of people who wrote down cancer risk.

‘There was no condition that 100 percent of people said – not even metabolic or cardiovascular disease – so there’s room for improvement there.’

She said there are a number of reasons why people don’t associate being sedentary with an increased cancer risk.

‘Doctors and health professions are extraordinarily busy. When we come in for our year exam, they have a limited amount of time,’ Dr Waters said.

She said as result of this small gap of window, doctors tend to triage, or assign degrees of urgency to the treatment of patients.

‘So, for example, if I’m bleeding, I’d rather they take care of my bleeding then talk about my risk of cancer,’ Dr Water said.

She added that many adults don’t make the association because they don’t see a direct link.

‘When you exercise, you feel your heart pumping so it makes common sense that you would realize exercise would be great for your heart,’ she said.

‘But to realize the cancer risk, it takes a lot more explanation. When the links are not obvious, it’s easier to forget.’ 

The authors wrote in the study that many public health campaigns have focused on communicating on how exercise encourages weight loss and improves heart health, but have failed to discuss other benefits.

‘Incorporating the lowered risk of cancer as a focus of these campaigns would be beneficial to making people more aware,’ said Dr Waters. 

The authors note in the study that another focus needs to be made on getting Americans to change their sedentary lifestyle. 

‘I don’t know how big the proportion is but I think people may not be willing to exercise because they don’t realize how much of a risk they have of various health problems,’ Dr Waters said.



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