Incidence of Colon Cancer Increasing in Young Adults

June 8, 2009

abdominal cavity Colon cancer (colorectal cancer) is the fourth most common malignant neoplasm worldwide and the second leading cause of cancer deaths (irrespective of gender) in the United States.

The risk of colon cancer begins to increase after the age of 40 and rises sharply at the ages of 50 to 55; the risk doubles with each succeeding decade and continues to rise exponentially.

Colon cancer is one of the two major cancers (the other being stomach cancer), the risk of which is commonly agreed to be modified mainly by food, nutrition and lifestyle habits.

A new study has found that in sharp contrast to the overall declining rates of colon cancer in the United States, incidence rates among adults younger than age 50 years are increasing. The study authors theorize that these increases may be related to rising rates of obesity and changes in dietary patterns, including increased consumption of fast food. The authors say that further studies are necessary to elucidate causes for this trend and to identify potential prevention and early detection strategies.

Overall incidence rates for colon cancer in the United States have been on the decline since the mid-1980s, with the drop accelerating in the most recent time period. Rates are now dropping 2.8 percent per year in men and 2.2 percent per year in women, largely due to an increase in screening, particularly colonoscopy, among individuals ages 50 years and older. Screening can reduce colon cancer incidence by detecting and removing polyps before they become cancerous. But recent incidence trends among adults younger than 50 years, for whom routine screening is not recommended, have not been analyzed thoroughly. A previous study did find an increase in incidence from 1973 to 1999 for all races combined, but that study did not include 40 to 49 year-olds, who represent 73 percent of colon cancer patients under age 50.

In a new analysis, American Cancer Society researchers led by Rebecca L. Siegel looked at trends in colon cancer incidence rates between 1992 and 2005 among young adults (ages 20 to 49) by sex, race/ethnicity, age, stage at diagnosis, and anatomic subsite. The study found that among individuals ages 20 to 49, incidence rates of colon cancer increased 1.5 percent per year in men and 1.6 percent per year in women from 1992 to 2005. Among non-Hispanic Whites, rates increased for both men and women in each 10-year age grouping (20-29, 30-39, and 40-49 years) and for every stage of diagnosis. They found the largest annual percent increase in colon cancer incidence was in the youngest age group (20-29 years), in whom incidence rates rose by 5.2% per year in men and 5.6% per year in women. They say the rises are due to an increase in left-sided tumors, particularly in the rectum.

The researchers address several possibilities for the rise, including rising rates of obesity, which is a major risk factor for colon cancer. Dietary factors may also come into play. The researchers note that between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, fast-food consumption in the United States increased 5-fold among children and 3-fold among adults. A diet high in fast food is associated with both greater meat consumption and reduced milk consumption.

Increased consumption of red and processed meat has been shown to increase risk of cancers of the distal colon and rectum, while milk and calcium consumption have shown a protective effect against the subsites in which the rise in incidence was most prominent. They say it is plausible that the emergence of unfavorable dietary patterns in children and young adults over the past three decades may have contributed to the increase in colorectal cancer among young adults observed in the study.

The authors conclude: “The disparate increase in left-sided colorectal cancer suggests that particular attention be given to studies to elucidate the behavioral and environmental risk factors responsible for this trend and potential prevention and early detection strategies.”

Dietary recommendation for the prevention of colon cancer

  • Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day (fresh rather than preserved) including a variety thereof such as green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and tomato products, cruciferous vegetables (e.g. cabbage, Brussels sprouts) and dark orange vegetables. Special emphasis should be placed on vegetable consumption in colon cancer prevention.
  • Eat less red meat and processed meat, and more white meat (chicken, turkey and fish).
  • Eat more than 7 servings a day of a variety of cereal foods, mainly in an unprocessed form such as whole wheat bread and breakfast cereals as well as whole grain pasta and rice (20-30g of fiber a day).
  • Limit total fat intake to ? 30% of calories.

1. Rebecca L. Siegel, Ahmedin Jemal, and Elizabeth M. Ward. Increase in Incidence of Colorectal Cancer Among Young Men and Women in the United States. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2009;18(6):1695.
2. Nutrition Information Centre. University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
3. Image by by aJ GAZMEN ? GucciBeaR

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One Comment

  1. Leslie Johnson

    June 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Out of curiousity, I googled bowel cancer incidence as I have been researching GMO’s and the effects a GM diet has had on laboratory animals. Scientific findings from stomach lining irritations to death have surfaced. Since GMO foods are not labeled, and the awareness of the prevalence of GM products is only now becoming more apparent to the population (meaning we people have essentially been guinea pigs since the mid-nineties), I wanted to see what the bowel CA incidence was in humans. While suggesting fast food and high fat diets are, admittedly, unhealthy, and may indeed be a culprit, GMO’s should also be under scutiny, especially since the FDA took the word of GMO corporations that they were safe.

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