Young white people are increasingly dying of colorectal cancer, a disease typically associated with older people, according to a report published Aug. 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Death rates for colorectal cancer for adults under 55 have been increasing over the past decade,” Rebecca Siegel, lead author and epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, told HuffPost.
The report found that between 2004 and 2014, the colorectal cancer death rate among young white people between the ages of 20 and 54 rose from 3.6 colorectal cancer deaths per 100,000 people to 4.1 deaths per year, or about 1.4 percent per year.
The same was not true for the black population, among whom mortality declined over the same period.
And while health experts previously theorized that more widespread colonoscopy testing could be driving disease diagnoses, the new report suggests that’s not the case.
“This is a change in the trend, because the death rate was declining for the previous couple of decades by about 2 percent per year,” Siegel said. “This indicates that the increase in colorectal cancer incidence that we see in this age group is a true increase.”
Another clue that increased testing is not behind the disease increase: the largest increase in diagnoses was for metastatic cancer. “Typically if it were earlier detection, the biggest increase would be for localized stage,” Siegel said.
No one knows what’s driving the increase or racial disparity
In addition to a family history of colorectal cancer, obesity, diet, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and heavy alcohol use are all associated with the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Those environmental risks, however, don’t explain the racial disparity in the new report.
“Obesity is the prime suspect these days because we know that we’ve had decades of increasing body weight and we know that this actually causes cancer,” Siegel said. “But it doesn’t really make sense with that theory, because we’re not seeing the rise in blacks as well.”
Indeed, 48 percent of black Americans are obese, compared to 43 percent of Hispanics and 35 percent of white Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The actual risk for young people is small, but there are still steps you should take to protect your health
“Most people under 55 are not going to develop colorectal cancer,” Siegel stressed. “Most cases are in older people.”
Still, colorectal cancer is expected to cause more than 50,000 deaths in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s also the second leading cause of cancer-related death in men and the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in women.
Symptoms of the disease include bleeding from the rectum, bloody stools, abdominal cramping, changes in bowel habits and unexplained weight loss.
To protect health, maintain a healthy body weight, stay physically active, avoid excess alcohol consumption and don’t smoke. Everyone should start recommended colonoscopies at age 50, and those with a family history of colorectal cancer should talk to their doctors about starting screening before age 50.
“It’s bad news in that we have this concerning trend and we don’t understand why,” Siegel said. “But in the meantime, while we’re waiting for more etiologic research to try to unlock the mystery, there are absolutely many things that we can do to reduce the morbidity and mortality from this disease.”