According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prostate cancer is the most common non-skin cancer among American men, and the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 180,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.
Beyond the threat of prostate cancer, an enlarged or infected prostate can also lead to complications.
King Scott Coffield, MD, urologist and professor of surgery at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, offers these tips to keep your prostate healthy.
What does the prostate do, and what problems can develop?
The prostate is a gland—about the size of a walnut—located below the bladder. Its primary function is to produce fluid that nourishes and protects sperm. “It’s a specialized muscle that works automatically,” Coffield said. “It also provides a hospitable fluid vehicle for sperm cells to gain access to fertilize the egg in the female.”
The prostate houses the urethra, which runs from the bladder to the penis and lets urine flow out of the body. An enlarged prostate, called a benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), could press on the urethra and obstruct urine flow.
Eight out of 10 men are at risk for this benign prostate enlargement that comes with aging. Some of these risk factors can’t be prevented, but there are changes that can be done to reduce the risk of prostate enlargement and prostate disease.
Watch your weight—and do it early
Because the prostate is a muscle, the best way to keep your prostate healthy is with a muscle-friendly diet and exercise. And although many men don’t worry about prostate health until their later years, Coffield recommends making healthy decisions earlier on.
“A healthy diet, regular exercise and weight control all help maintain blood flow to the muscle and allows the prostate to function best,” Coffield said. “It’s important to work on healthy lifestyle when you’re younger to maintain the benefits as you age.”
Staying at an unhealthy weight or living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to obstructed blood flow. This can lead to hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency, and can increase risk of erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer.
“When blood can’t efficiently travel to and from the prostate, there’s an increased risk of genetic mutations and prostate cancer,” Coffield added. “Walking is a wonderful form of exercise for longevity and can create new blood vessels. The rule is that ‘if it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the prostate.’”
Be more sexually active
Frequent use of the prostate through sexual activity may actually decrease the risk of prostate cancer.
“Studies have suggested that ejaculation frequency, along with exercise, lead to better prostate health,” Coffield added. “The prostate is used during ejaculation, and this usage can help keep the gland healthy.”
In fact, a Harvard study found that men with more frequent ejaculations had a 33 percent lower risk of prostate cancer compared with men who reported fewer ejaculations throughout their lifetimes.
According to the CDC, tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, with over 480,000 deaths each year from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.
While avoiding tobacco is important for overall health, it’s very important to prostate health in particular.
“The carbon monoxide in tobacco attaches to red blood cells until the cell dies,” Coffield said. “It reduces red blood cells’ oxygen-carrying capacity and makes it more difficult for oxygen to travel throughout the body, and in particular the prostate.”
Smoking also increases the risk of hypoxia and the amount of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are atoms with an odd number of electrons that are very reactive and can cause chain reactions including gene mutations and development of cancer cells in organs—including the prostate.
Add these to your diet
While improving your diet will help your overall prostate health, there are specific nutrients that should be added if you’re taking extra precautions. Lycopene, a chemical found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, is a potent antioxidant and can improve prostate health.
Interestingly, Texas A&M research has shown that sulforaphane, which is found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale, may inhibit the development of prostate cancer cells. Also, foods rich in selenium—such as wheat germ, tuna, shellfish, liver and kidney—are beneficial for your prostate.
Studies have also suggested that soy can improve prostate health and lower the risk of prostate cancer. While there is continuing research on the benefits or risks of soy, consuming one or two servings of soy daily is a considered healthy.
When should you be screened?
According to the American Urological Association (AUA) Guidelines Panel, men with increased risk—who either have a family history of breast or prostate cancer, or are African-American—should start the discussion about beginning to screen for prostate cancer between the ages of 40 to 54.
Those with average risk should begin screening at 55 with the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, though there is no definite recommendation on how often you should be screened.
To decrease the risk of false positives and over-diagnosis, one suggestion made by the panel is to wait longer, two or more years, between screenings when the PSA level is low enough to allow an increased interval between PSA check.
“It’s important to discuss with your primary care physician your options to make a well-informed decision on when to begin PSA exams, and how often to obtain them,” Coffield said.
The PSA test can detect some prostate cancer five to seven years before it’s palpated, or felt, in the prostate. Along with the PSA blood test, an annual digital rectal exam can detect conditions.
“These tests are sensitive to diseases of the prostate,” Coffield said. “If we can identify cancer earlier, then we can treat it most effectively.”