Here's Why Colon Cancer Is On The Rise In Young People

While rates of colon cancer among older adults have dropped significantly over the years, experts are seeing more young adults being diagnosed with the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. Characterized by cancerous cell growth within the colon or rectum, it is reported that individuals born in 1990 are at twice the risk of developing colon cancer and four times more susceptible to developing rectal cancer than those born in the year 1950 (via University of Connecticut).

While experts are unable to point to an exact cause for this rise in numbers, excess alcohol consumption, poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight and obesity are known contributing factors. "We know that having excess body fat increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer," Dr. Joel Levine, founder and co-director of the Colon Cancer Prevention Program at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health told UConn Today. The reason being is that the accumulation of fat can boost insulin production and inflammation in the body, both of which can make a person more prone to cancer. In a 2023 study published in JAMA, researchers found that rates of obesity in young adults ages 20 to 44 jumped from over 32% to nearly 41% between 2009 and 2020. While more research is needed, it is suggested that genetics may also play a role in whether a young person may be predisposed to colon cancer (via Yale Medicine). 

A sedentary lifestyle has been linked with an increased risk of colon cancer

Living a sedentary lifestyle has also been identified as a risk factor for colon cancer. Much like rates of obesity, rates of sedentary behavior have also been on the rise among young people in recent years, according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The researchers analyzed the lifestyle habits of 631 young adults in China ages 18 to 35 both during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. The research findings showed that participants spent significantly more time engaged in sedentary behaviors during the pandemic than they did before the virus outbreak. Sedentary behavior was found to have increased even after quarantine ended.

While symptoms are not always present in earlier stages of the disease, some signs of colon cancer to be on the lookout for include rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, or changes in bowel habits. Although colorectal cancer screenings are recommended starting at the age of 45, be sure to speak to your doctor about any unusual symptoms experienced at any age, particularly if you are deemed higher risk. Your physician may encourage colon cancer screenings starting at an earlier age.

Hereditary causes of colon cancer among young people

A predisposition to colon cancer may also have hereditary roots. For example, young people with a family medical history of Lynch syndrome are more prone to developing colon cancer specifically, along with other cancers, according to Mayo Clinic experts. Formerly referred to medically as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), the condition often affects those younger than 50 years of age.

Lynch syndrome occurs when a person inherits a gene abnormality that prevents the body from correcting any errors made during DNA replication as the body produces new cells. MedlinePlus reports that an estimated 1 in 279 Americans possess a gene mutation linked with Lynch syndrome. In the event that a parent has a Lynch syndrome-related gene variant, each child has a 50% chance of inheriting the same gene. For this reason, it's important to talk to your doctor if Lynch syndrome runs in your family. A genetics specialist can help determine whether genetic testing may be advised.