Home interventions benefit older cancer survivors

By Megan Rauscher

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A home-based diet and exercise program may improve physical functioning in elderly, long-term cancer survivors, results of a controlled study indicate.

“Today, two thirds of individuals diagnosed with cancer survive their cancer,” Dr. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried noted a conference sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research.

“That’s good news. However, the dark side of cancer survivorship,” she said, “is that this is a population that is at risk for functional decline, particularly for older cancer survivors who make up 60 percent of all cancer survivors.”

In a study funded by the National Cancer Institute, Demark-Wahnefried, from the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and colleagues tested the impact of a home-based diet and exercise intervention targeting elderly cancer survivors on functional decline.

“Younger cancer patients are usually able to bounce back, but older patients may need a structured program to stop functional decline and retain independence,” Demark-Wahnefried said.

The study involved 641 elderly, overweight, sedentary survivors of breast, prostate or colorectal cancer who had been diagnosed with cancer at least 5 years ago with no recurrence. The subjects were randomly assigned to no intervention (control group) or an intervention aimed to improving strength training and endurance exercise, lowering saturated fats, and increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption.

The intervention group received 15 telephone counseling calls over 1 year, 8 telephone prompts, a tailored workbook and 4 tailored newsletters.

At 1 year, a standard physical function test showed a 2.5-point decline in physical ability in the intervention group compared with a 5.3-point decline in the control group. “We were able to half the functional decline in our intervention group as was seen in our control group. That’s really exciting,” Demark-Wahnefried told the conference.

“If you wanted to compare the difference in magnitude that we saw between these groups — it was the difference between one group having the functional decline associated with ischemic heart disease versus not having that — so it was very significant,” she added.

The intervention group increased their ability to perform moderate to vigorous physical activity by 44.9 minutes a week compared with 29.7 minutes per week in the control group. They also lost more weight than participants in the control group.

Demark-Wahnefried said the study will continue for another year to see if the findings can be replicated in the control group and to “test for durability.”

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