Colorectal Cancer Isn’t Old News

Apr 5, 2019 | Colon Cancer

Getting a colonoscopy at age 50 used to be old news, but not anymore! Things are changing, and new research is showing a growing population at high risk of colon cancer, and it’s not the old folks; it’s people in their 30s and 40s. Colorectal cancer risk is increasing in this group while decreasing in people over 50. There are some reasons why this might be and some ideas about how to stop it.

Increased Risk

Not only has the risk of colorectal cancer increased in the 30 to 49 population, but it has increased by significant amounts and more than that of older people. This is one of the only cancers that is more likely to occur in young people than older people. Since 2000, colorectal cancer in adults over 50 has decreased by 32%, and the mortality rate has decreased by 34%, in large part because recommended screening colonoscopies. That is not the case for people in their 30s and 40s. Researchers are now saying a person born in 1990 is twice as likely to get colon cancer and four times as likely to get rectal cancer than someone born in 1950.

These findings are pushing researchers to look for causes. While nothing definitive has been discovered yet, there are some theories as to why this might be happening. One is that for years, the message has been for people to start getting screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. That may explain why the 50+ age group are experiencing less instances of colorectal cancer. Likewise, the obesity rate across all age groups in the U.S. has risen over the last several years, and the same is true for young people. Studies show that obesity is a big factor in obesity-related cancer occurrence, so it stands to reason that if obesity increases, so will instances of cancer.

Assessing Risk

There are several general risk factors that aren’t specific to a certain age group. These include diet, alcohol, and smoking. As part of the digestive system, the colon and rectum are directly affected by what is put into the system. Diets that don’t contain much fiber and are primarily based on animal products do not assist the digestive system with its primary functions and can lead to irregularities including cancer. Plant-based diets, rich in fiber, do the opposite and can decrease the risk of colorectal cancer. Alcohol and smoking have also been shown to increase chances of colorectal cancer.

Certain medical conditions can raise a person’s risk for colorectal cancer, like inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, as was already mentioned. It is important that people who suffer from one or more of these conditions monitor their health closely and look for common symptoms like bloody stool, cramps and abdominal pain, loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, and anemia.

While the risks above are all-encompassing, there are a few factors that especially affect young people. One is the availability of unhealthy “convenience” foods. The number of fast food restaurants in the U.S. has grown by 28,000 in a decade. While the menus may include healthier options, the bulk of these restaurants’ sales is still from processed, fried, and fatty foods. This type of food promotes obesity and type 2 diabetes, which can lead to colorectal cancer. Another issue researchers are starting to look at is amount of TV people are watching now and how this is affecting their health. A study in JNCI Cancer Spectrum found that women under 50 who watched TV more than one hour every day were 12% more likely to get colorectal cancer than those who watched less than an hour. The percentage jumped to 70% with more than two hours of TV per day! This finding was consistent regardless of family history, level of activity, and weight. Sitting for hours at a time can not be counteracted by even daily cardio exercise.

This shocking discovery is especially concerning with the prevalence of streaming services and a trend toward binge-watching among young people.

Addressing Risk

It is important that we not only identify the problem but take steps to address it. Education must start from childhood inside the home and potentially at school as well. Learning healthy eating and exercise habits is easier at a young age, and studies show that children who grow up with positive patterns tend to carry them into adulthood. Catching colorectal cancer early is key to treating it, and one way to do that is knowing the symptoms and not hesitating to visit your doctor if you see signs. Researchers are recommending that discussions about weight be a regular part of annual physicals and exams in order to help people understand the impact of obesity and take action to prevent it.

One way the medical community is already addressing the problem is lowering the recommended screening age to 45 with a caveat that if you have certain risk factors, you may need to begin screening even earlier. Thirty-five percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer before age 50 have a genetic mutation, so if you have a family medical history, you likely need to be screened earlier than 45.

If you are wondering when you should begin screening for colorectal cancer, or if you think you may be experiencing symptoms, come see us at Gastroenterology Consultants of Savannah. One of our doctors can meet with you to discuss your risk factors and schedule a colonoscopy if necessary. You can easily request an appointment online.