America's Health Rankings 2012 -- and what they portend for cancer

December 11, 2012 | by Tami Dennis

America’s Health Rankings for 2012 have been released – and many of us may be in a great deal of trouble.

The United Health Foundation’s annual state-by-state report assessed four broad factors that can affect our health: personal behaviors, environment, policies and clinical care. The calculations were complex, with Louisiana and Mississippi tying for last and Vermont again winning bragging rights as the most-healthy state.

Rates of tobacco use, alcohol abuse, infectious diseases, crime rates, public health funding, availability of immunizations, premature birth rates and diseases rates all played a role in the rankings, as USA Today explained.  

But for cancer researchers, the report may have special resonance.

 

Light exercise, even walking, can reduce breast cancer risk. Light exercise, even walking, can reduce breast cancer risk. But, as the new America's Health Rankings show, too many people don't get enough exercise. (Image credit: Thinkstock)

 

One of the take-home findings of the rankings was that far too many of the country’s residents qualify as couch potatoes. And growing research – including that conducted at City of Hope – has established just how much of an impact inactivity can have on cancer risk.

 More than 35 percent of adults in Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia were sedentary, according to the report, while in the comparatively more healthy California, Colorado, Oregon and Utah, less than 20 percent were sedentary. The national median is 26.2 percent, the report added.

Those are not small numbers, even in the so-called healthy states.

“It is estimated that eliminating physical inactivity in the U.S. could add nearly a year to life expectancy and dramatically reduce the burden of chronic disease,” the report said.

Further, the report continued: "Obesity is one of the greatest health threats to the U.S. It contributes significantly to a variety of serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers as well as poor general health.47 Obesity is a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., causing an estimated 200,000 deaths annually."

City of Hope’s Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., director of the Division of Cancer Etiology in the Department of Population Sciences, has researched the link between exercise and breast cancer.

She started by focusing on estrogen, which fuels many breast cancers. “We sat back and asked, ‘What can lower your estrogen levels?’ — and we started looking at exercise,” said Bernstein.   

She found that moderate, regular activity – even doing something as simple as walking – can lower exposure to female hormones and thus reduce risk. Other results from the California Teachers Study, which she leads, bear this out.

The new rankings may be but the latest report pointing out Americans' deplorable lack of physical activity. But it's a complete report – and one that bodes ill for the health of us all.

"As a nation, we now face increasing levels of preventable illness, serious medical care affordability and access issues, and difficult choices regarding the allocation of public resources," said Reed V. Tuckson, M.D., in an accompanying statement.

As medical advisor for the United Health Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation committed to improving health and health care, he should know.  The foundation partnered with the American Public Health Association and the Partnership for Prevention to create the rankings. 

"I urge all of us to do what we can through our individual efforts to promote our own health, the health of our families, and the health of our communities," he said.

Exercise is one part of that.

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