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More young people are dying of colorectal cancer. Three lifestyle factors could be partly to blame, scientists say.

Kim Schewitz   

More young people are dying of colorectal cancer. Three lifestyle factors could be partly to blame, scientists say.
  • Colorectal-cancer deaths among younger people in Europe could rise by around a third in 2024.
  • The study was conducted in the EU and UK, but the findings mirror what's also happening in the US.

More younger people are expected to die of colorectal cancer in Europe this year than ever before, according to the authors of a new study, who say alcohol, low levels of activity, and obesity could be partly to blame.

Cancer researchers from the University of Milan, in Italy, predicted that colorectal-cancer deaths among people aged 25 to 49 would rise significantly in the EU and the UK this year compared to 2018.

The study echoes the situation in the US, a cancer researcher told Business Insider.

Christina Annunziata, the senior vice president of extramural discovery at the American Cancer Society, said the findings were similar to those published on January 17 in her organization's 2024 cancer statistics report.

The report found that colorectal cancer, which is also called colon, bowel, or rectal cancer, depending on where it started, is the leading cause of cancer death for men under 50 in the US and the second-deadliest cancer for women in the same age group. The numbers have been rising since the late '90s, and the actor Chadwick Boseman's death from colon cancer in 2020 shone a light on the issue.

"The percentages are a little bit different, but I think the trend is similar, and I think the comments about obesity, diet, and alcohol use are certainly valid," Annunziata said.

The study, published in the journal Annals of Oncology on January 29, said the biggest uptick in the countries studied is set to be in the UK, where the authors predict deaths could rise by 26% in younger men and by nearly 39% in younger women compared to six years ago. The study also predicted smaller increases in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Poland.

To make the estimates, the researchers analyzed data on deaths from the World Health Organization and Eurostat databases from 1970 to 2018 for most of the 27 EU member states and the UK. They have published these predictions each year for the past 14 years.

Though the study estimated that colorectal-cancer deaths will fall overall in 2024, this is the first year there has been a prediction of a rise in colorectal-cancer deaths among younger people.

Colorectal cancer is typically deadlier in younger people

Colorectal cancer in younger people tends to be more aggressive, with lower survival rates compared to colorectal cancer diagnosed in older people, Carlo La Vecchia, the lead author of the study, said in a press release.

He believes that the key factors contributing to the rise in colorectal-cancer rates among younger people are obesity and health conditions related to carrying excess weight, such as high blood-sugar levels and diabetes.

More people drinking alcohol, which has been linked to early-onset colorectal cancer, and less physical activity could also be factors, the study said.

"Countries where there has been a reduction in alcohol consumption, such as France and Italy, have not experienced such marked rises in death rates from this cancer," La Vecchia said.

He said that death rates tended to decrease in countries with better access to screening and early diagnosis. "However, the increased mortality among young people is a concern," he said.

Commenting on the rise in younger people getting colorectal cancer, Kimmie Ng, the director of the Young Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told NBC last month: "What we suspect may be happening is that whatever combination of environmental factors is responsible for this, that it's likely changing our microbiomes or our immune systems, leading us to become more susceptible to these cancers at a younger age."

The authors of the study recommended that governments consider strengthening policies that encourage people to be more active and drink less alcohol, providing earlier cancer screenings, and helping overweight or obese people lose weight.

Annunziata said that these recommendations should apply to the US, too.

"The takeaway is that people should strive to maintain a healthy weight, a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat, regular exercise, and should limit use of tobacco and alcohol," she said.