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Behind the Alarming Rise in Colon Cancer Diagnoses for Gen Xers & Millennials

If you think colorectal cancer is only a problem later in life, think again: a new study found that people born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer than those born in 1950.

Published today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the study found that now, 3 in 10 people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are under the age of 55.

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Overall, CRC rates have been declining since the 1980s thanks to increased awareness and accessibility to screening. But that hasn’t been the case for people under 50 because screening is not recommended for those at average risk.

Researchers found that after decreasing since 1975, CRC incidence rates increased by 1 percent to 2 percent each year from the mid-1980s through 2013 in adults ages 20 to 39. CRC incidence rates increased for those 40 to 54, but by 0.5 percent to 1 percent each year from the mid-1990s through 2013.

So why does this matter?

Looking at health trends in young people offers us a glimpse into the future health landscape, allowing medical practitioners and public health officials more time to prepare.

“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 Rebecca Siegel of the American Cancer Society and lead investigator of the study. “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.”

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And why this major increase?

For starters, yes, early-onset CRC is more strongly influenced by genetics than late-onset disease, but the majority of these cases are sporadic. The fact that there was such a dramatic shift in diagnoses made to younger people signals relatively recent societal health behavior changes that would increase risk of CRC. Some of these lifestyle factors associated with CRC risk include body weight, high consumption of processed meat and alcohol, low levels of physical activity and fiber consumption and cigarette smoking.

According to the authors, increasing obesity rates, unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles have all contributed to the increase. The good news is that the rise in CRC in young adults could have been even worse if it weren’t for the long-term declines in smoking and alcohol consumption.

Siegel and the others suggest that we may need to reconsider the recommended age for initiating screenings.

More: Colorectal Cancer: What You Need to Know

Currently, the American Cancer Society suggests that men and women at average risk for CRC start getting screenings at age 50. But the authors of the study point out that 10,400 new cases of CRC were diagnosed in people in their 40s in 2013, with an additional 12,800 cases diagnosed in people in their early 50s — meaning that it might be time for a change in protocol.

“These numbers are similar to the total number of cervical cancers diagnosed, for which we recommend screening for the 95 million women ages 21 to 65 years,” said Siegel.

What can do you do to help prevent CRC?


Ask your doctor about screenings, even if you’re under 50.


  • Limit red and processed meats.
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits.
  • Eat more fiber.
  • Get the recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D.


  • Increase the intensity and amount of your physical activity.
  • Don’t sit all day long. Get up and move!
  • Avoid excess alcohol.
  • Don’t smoke.

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