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Exercise may protect girls from future breast cancer

By LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer
 

WASHINGTON - Get your daughters off the couch: New research shows exercise during the teen years starting as young as age 12 can help protect girls from breast cancer when they're grown. Middle-aged women have long been advised to get active to lower their risk of breast cancer after menopause.

What's new: That starting so young pays off, too.

"This really points to the benefit of sustained physical activity from adolescence through the adult years, to get the maximum benefit," said Dr. Graham Colditz of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the study's lead author.

Researchers tracked nearly 65,000 nurses ages 24 to 42 who enrolled in a major health study. They answered detailed questionnaires about their physical activity dating back to age 12. Within six years of enrolling, 550 were diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause. A quarter of all breast cancer is diagnosed at these younger ages, when it's typically more aggressive.

Women who were physically active as teens and young adults were 23 percent less likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer than women who grew up sedentary, researchers report Wednesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The biggest impact was regular exercise from ages 12 to 22.

"This is not the extreme athlete," Colditz cautioned.

The women at lowest risk reported doing 3 hours and 15 minutes of running or other vigorous activity a week or, for the less athletic, 13 hours a week of walking. Typically, the teens reported more strenuous exercise while during adulthood, walking was most common.

Why would it help? A big point of exercise in middle age and beyond is to keep off the pounds. After menopause, fat tissue is a chief source of estrogen.

In youth, however, the theory is that physical activity itself lowers estrogen levels. Studies of teen athletes show that very intense exercise can delay onset of menstrual cycles and cause irregular periods.

The moderate exercise reported in this study was nowhere near enough for those big changes. But it probably was enough to cause slight yet still helpful hormone changes, said Dr. Alpa Patel, a cancer prevention specialist at the American Cancer Society, who praised the new research.

And while the study examined only premenopausal breast cancer, "it's certainly likely and possible" that the protection from youthful exercise will last long enough to affect more common postmenopausal breast cancer, too, Colditz added.

If you were a bookworm as a teen, it's not too late, Patel said. Other research on the middle-age benefits of exercise shows mom should join her daughters for that bike ride or game of tennis or at least a daily walk around the block.

Many breast cancer risks a woman can't change: How early she starts menstruating, how late menopause hits, family history of the disease.

Even though the exercise benefit is modest, physical activity and body weight are risk factors that women can control, Patel stressed.

"I'd say you and your daughter are getting off the couch," she said. "Women who engage in physical activity not only during adolescence but during adulthood lower their risk."

 

 

A Different Picture Of Heart Disease

By: Ng Peng Hock

In Feb 2006, researchers reported that many women suffer from a fundamentally different heart disease from men and is easily missed from standard tests. Moreover, women do not seek treatment as early as men, and women's hearts are smaller and their blood vessels are more easily damaged. Another possible reason is that the disease could manifest itself differently. As a result, women are less likely to survive heart attacks than men. Many women are still unaware that heart disease and stroke have emerged as the top killers of women worldwide.

The researchers found that for some women, instead of developing obvious blockages in the arteries supplying blood to the heart, plaque are accumulated more evenly inside the major arteries and in smaller blood vessels. In other cases, their arteries fail to expand properly or go into spasm, often at times of physical or emotional stress. These abnormalities are very common for younger women and these can be dangerous because they could trigger life-threatening heart attacks.

Instead of the classic crushing chest pain, sweating and shortness of breath, they often complain of vague symptoms such as fatigue, an upset in stomach, or pain in the jaw or shoulders. This certainly explain why some women suddenly have heart attacks even though their arteries look clear and in some cases, the doctors even send them home without treatment or refer them to psychiatrists. Even if they do get medical treatment, these women may not benefit from the standard drugs or therapies such as bypass surgery and angioplasty to reopen the clogged arteries. In many cases, these women whose arteries looked clear in normal tests have a significantly higher risk of having a heart attack or dying within four or five years. The abnormalities could be due to the fact that hormonal or genetic differences change how their arteries react. In America, there are as many as three million women may suffer from these conditions.

Despite the new findings, many women do have the same kind of heart disease as men, and they do benefit from the same preventative measures and treatments that help men: a healthy diet and weight; regular exercise; and a lower blood pressure and cholesterol level. It is still unclear how best doctors can tackle such conditions, but the new findings do provide important understanding of a major health problem, and it also alerts both women and their doctors about the alternative manifestations of the disease.