Does anything tug at the heart more than a child with cancer? Sadly, even those lucky enough to be cured of the disease face greater odds of poor health once they become adults. Among the risks, they are known to have a greater chance of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases a person’s likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Fortunately, a new study published in Cancer finds childhood cancer survivors, by following a healthy lifestyle, may lower their risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that, when occurring together, increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. These conditions include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. While having just one may up the ante on serious disease, two or more of the conditions raise the possibility of a person developing serious disease.

In order to understand how lifestyle might impact these odds, Dr. Kirsten Ness, of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and her colleagues enlisted the help of 1,598 childhood cancer survivors who were cancer-free for at least a decade. "This study is unique because of the large, well characterized population of survivors of various diagnoses that we studied, many years from their original cancer diagnosis," Ness said.

First, participants filled out questionnaires to help the researchers determine whether they were following the healthy lifestyle recommendations issued by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research. Those who met at least four of seven recommendations were classified as following the guidelines. Next, the researchers examined participants to understand the state of their health. After analyzing all the data, the researchers discovered 27 percent of participants followed the healthy lifestyle guidelines.

That said, nearly one-third (32 percent) of all participants showed evidence of metabolic syndrome. Nevertheless, the risk factors were stark. Females who did not follow the guidelines were 2.4 times more likely to have metabolic syndrome than those who followed the guidelines, while males were 2.2 times more likely. "These findings are important because they indicate that adults who were treated for cancer as children have the opportunity to influence their own health outcomes," Ness said.

She and her colleagues recommend that survivors of childhood cancer first and foremost do not smoke, yet they also should adopt a lifestyle that includes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy body weight, and exercising regularly. Additionally, she suggests a survivor’s diet should limit refined sugars, excessive alcohol, red meat, and salt, all of which may contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. While those who overcome cancer in childhood may face a tougher journey than most, a few simple lifestyle choices may have a great and lasting impact on their health.

Source: Smith WA, Li C, Nottage KA, et al Lifestyle and metabolic syndrome in adult survivors of childhood cancer: A report from the St. Jude Lifetime Cohort Study. Cancer. 2014.