Colon Cancer Rates Are Increasing Among Millennials


A new study assessing the rates of colorectal cancer among those under 50 found a disquieting trend — young adults are seeing a significant jump in cancer cases.

The surging incidence of colon cancer among young adults bucks a decades-long trend, starting in the 1980s, that has seen national cancer rates decline.

Tumors invade a vein in a case of colorectal cancer. Credit: Patho/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Perhaps most worrisome is that the increasing rates are affecting the youngest population. The study found that millennials — or those born between 1980 and 1995 — are seeing a rate increase of up to 2 percent per year through 2013.

Older adults in generation X — those born between 1965 and 1979 — are also witnessing surging rates, but at about 1 percent, or half the increase seen among millennials.

The study found that rates of rectal cancer among young adults are also on the rise. Rates among millennials have risen about 3 percent per year between 1974 and 2013 — something that the study authors are calling a historic reversal in cancer incidence.

Related: Where You Live May Determine Your Risk of Dying From Certain Cancers

This chart shows trends in age-specific colon and rectal cancer incidence rates by year of birth, United States, 1974-2013. Caption/Image Credit: Journal of the National Cancer Institute

“Our finding that colorectal cancer risk for millennials has escalated back to the level of those born in the late 1800s is very sobering,” said study author Rebecca Siegel, MPH, with the American Cancer Society.

The new study, appearing in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, spells ominous health implications for the millennial generation. “Trends in young people are a bellwether for the future disease burden,” said Siegel.

How to Limit Your Risk

In a related publication, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) issued preventive steps that individuals can take to reduce their chances of getting colon cancer, which AICR calls “one of the most preventable” cancers people face.

“By making a few changes in what you eat and drink, and getting at least 30 minutes of activity in every day, you have the power to significantly lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer,” said Alice Bender, MS, RDN, head of nutrition programs with the American Institute for Cancer Research. “We estimate that about 63,000 cases in the United States every year wouldn’t have to happen if everyone were to make these lifestyle adjustments and stay a healthy weight.”

Among AICR’s recommendations are:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight and monitoring abdominal fat. Belly fat is a risk factor for colon and other cancers, notes AICR. To get started, “choose larger portions of colorful vegetables, but keep servings of calorie-packed foods like meats, cheese and nuts smaller.” Oh, and limit desserts and sweets.
  • Getting fit. Even moderate physical activity can lower your cancer risk. AICR suggests starting with just 10 minutes per day.
  • Avoiding red meat. Forego the burger or sausage links and instead opt for roasted chicken or peanut butter to make up for the lost protein.

For other tips, including the health benefits of eating more garlic, check out AICR’s full list.

Siegel also believes public health campaigns can help turn the tide. “Educational campaigns are needed to alert clinicians and the general public about this increase to help reduce delays in diagnosis, which are so prevalent in young people, but also to encourage healthier eating and more active lifestyles to try to reverse this trend,” she said.

Related: Success Rate of Non-Invasive Colon Cancer Test Questioned

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.