Half of all cancer deaths could be avoided if people simply adopted a healthier lifestyle, a major study has found.

If people stopped smoking, kept fit, slimmed down and had fewer alcoholic drinks, cancer death rates would be 50 per cent lower, according to Harvard scientists.

But just one in five women and one in four men who were analysed actually maintained such a healthy lifestyle. The stark findings are the first to put a figure on how many lives could be saved if people took responsibility for their own wellbeing.

Deaths for lung cancer would be slashed by 80 per cent, bowel cancer by up to 30 per cent, prostate cancer by 21 per cent and breast cancer by 12 per cent, if the entire population followed health advice.

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Scientists at Harvard Medical School announced their findings last night after examining the health records of 136,000 white Americans. They found that all cases of cancer would fall by 20 to 40 per cent, and deaths would drop by half if everyone adopted a healthy lifestyle.

The team said this would be achieved by quitting smoking, doing at least two and a half hours of moderate exercise a week and consuming no more than one drink a day for women or two for men.

They also suggested keeping to a body mass index of between 18.5 and 27.5 - which for someone with a height of 5ft 6in means a weight of 52 kilograms to 78 kilograms. The authors, writing in the journal JAMA Oncology, said persuading people to improve their lifestyle could save more lives than any drug.

They wrote: "These findings reinforce the predominate importance of lifestyle factors in determining cancer risk. Therefore, primary prevention should remain a priority for cancer control."

Dr Anne Mackie, deputy director of health and wellbeing at Public Health England, said: "Cancer isn't an inevitable part of aging and there are many simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing it."