Why Are More Younger People Developing Cancer?


Why are more young people developing cancer
Did you know that cancer rates are rising rapidly in people under the age of 50? This article looks at why this might be and what can be done to lower the risk.

Medical research reveals an unsettling trend – cancer rates in younger adults are rising at a disturbing rate. A comprehensive study published in BMJ Oncology uncovered that from 1990-2019, global cancer incidence among those under 50 soared by 79%. It’s a staggering uptick over just three decades.

While breast cancer remains common in younger women, two other cancer sites showed the most dramatic increases – the nasopharynx, or upper throat behind the nose, and the prostate. Colorectal cancer is also increasing in men and women under the age of 50. Something has shifted to drive the earlier onset of these diseases. Researchers are still investigating the complex factors driving this worldwide surge.

This exponential rise in early-onset cancers serves as a wake-up call. As a society, we need to re-examine everything from our diets to environmental exposures that could influence the risk. And on an individual level, we must become vigilant guardians of our health. Through a combination of awareness, advocacy, and proactive steps, we can work collectively to protect younger generations from cancer’s early intrusion.

The Rise of Early-Onset Cancers

One of the most startling aspects of this research is the revelation that cancers traditionally associated with older age groups have been steadily increasing among individuals under 50. The researchers meticulously examined data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019 Study. This data includes 204 countries and regions and analyzed 29 different types of cancers in individuals aged 14 to 49.

The findings? The under-50 crowd is developing cancer at an alarming rate. New research reveals just how significant the rise is. In 2019, nearly 1.82 million people under age 50 received a cancer diagnosis. That’s a shocking 79% jump compared to 1990’s numbers.

Breast cancer remains disturbingly common among younger women. Globally, it impacted 13.7 out of every 100,000 people in this age bracket. And it took the lives of 3.5 per 100,000. However, two other cancer sites saw the most dramatic escalation – the windpipe and prostate. Their estimated annual growth outpaced even breast cancer, at 2.28% and 2.23% respectively.

These statistics paint a grim picture, especially for millennials and Gen Z. Cancer is invading during our prime working and family-raising years. The steep climb indicates that today’s young adults face risk factors our parents and grandparents never encountered.

This exponential spike sounds an alarm – we need to overhaul our strategy to protect future generations. Only through spreading understanding and taking proactive steps can we hope to stop this unwelcome trajectory.

Are There Geographical Variations?

While the highest rates of early-onset cancers in 2019 were observed in North America, Australasia, and Western Europe,  low to middle-income countries were not exempt from this trend. Oceania, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia reported the highest death rates among the under 50s, highlighting the global reach of this issue.

The study found that early-onset cancer had a more profound impact on women than men in low to middle-income countries, both in terms of deaths and subsequent health consequences. This raises important questions about gender-specific risk factors and disparities in healthcare access.

What Lifestyle Factors Are Contributing to the Rise in Cancer in Younger People?

While genetic and diagnostic factors may contribute, the researchers also implicate some clear lifestyle trends. They suggest that diets heavy in red meat and salt while low in fruits, milk, and vegetables help fuel the most common young adult cancers. Consuming too much alcohol and tobacco use are also likely culprits. Additionally, the analysis spotlights widespread physical inactivity, ballooning obesity rates, and poor metabolic health as potentially stoking cancer’s early onset.

The takeaway is that our modern lifestyles – the foods we eat, the toxins we ingest, and the sedentary habits we indulge in – may all collectively prime our bodies for cancer in ways past generations never experienced. The under-50 uptick highlights the urgent need to promote prevention through diet, exercise, and reducing exposures. Knowledge is power when it comes to combating cancer’s premature rise.

The Role of Smoking and Alcohol in the Rising Cancer Risk

While smoking rates have declined in recent decades, alcohol consumption remains high. New research in The Lancet Oncology reveals the sobering impact – in 2020 alone, alcohol was tied to over 740,000 new cancer cases globally. That translates to around 1 in 25 cancers diagnosed.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, alcohol increases the risk of six cancer types, including colorectal, breast, esophageal, liver, stomach, and oral cancers. The takeaway is clear – alcohol is a definite carcinogen, not just an occasional indulgence.

As a society, we’ve made strides in curbing tobacco use but turning a blind eye to alcohol’s dangers. These striking statistics should serve as a wake-up call to re-examine our drinking habits and better educate younger generations on alcohol’s firm link to cancer. Through awareness and restraint, we can work to reverse this preventable cause of disease and suffering.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirms – no alcoholic beverage is off the hook when it comes to cancer risk. Whether it’s wine, beer, or liquor, the CDC confirms they all can contribute to cancer. And the more you drink, the greater the danger.

Drinking 3 or more alcoholic drinks per day significantly raises the odds of stomach, pancreatic, and prostate cancer based on compelling research. The evidence clearly shows a dose-dependent relationship – cancer risk climbs higher the more alcohol you consume.

So while an occasional glass of wine with dinner may seem harmless, the science indicates even light drinking is tied to increased vulnerability. When it comes to cancer prevention, limiting alcohol intake is vital, especially for those already facing higher genetic and environmental risks. Knowledge is power – being aware of alcohol’s firm carcinogenic effects allows us to make informed choices about intake.

The Role of Diet in Rising Cancer Rates

Numerous studies have established a concerning connection between processed foods and a greater susceptibility to cancer. Among the most alarming culprits are ultra-processed foods, the mainstay of the Western diet. Research shows around 60% of what people consume falls into the ultra-processed category.

A comprehensive investigation reported in The Lancet revealed that increased consumption of processed foods was linked with an increased risk across various fronts, including overall cancer incidence, head and neck cancers, esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, and stomach cancer.

Beyond eliminating ultra-processed foods, it’s less clear whether specific foods contribute to cancer risk. Some studies suggest that fruits and vegetables offer some protection against certain forms of cancer. Rich sources of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, these plant-based foods support cellular health.  Furthermore, fruits and vegetables harbor natural compounds, including antioxidants that may have some cancer-preventive properties, depending on the timing and dose.

The American Cancer Society champions a common sense prevention strategy – load up on antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies. Plant foods deliver a bonanza of cancer-fighting vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals without excess calories. In contrast, the ACS advises limiting sugar and refined carbs. These nutrient-poor foods can stimulate inflammation, feed cancer growth, and pack on pounds.

It’s a simple formula – crowding your plate with colorful produce while minimizing processed foods high in sugar and white flour is a proven way to thwart cancer. And what better motivation to fill half your plate with broccoli, berries, leafy greens, and other plant superheroes at each meal?

Embracing a produce-centered diet is a tangible step we can take, starting today, to lower our risk and protect the health of future generations. So, spend more time in the periphery of your supermarket where you find healthier, whole foods, including fruits and vegetables. Also, visit your local farmer’s market and enjoy more fresh produce.


It’s disturbing that cancer cases are increasing in younger age groups.  While the reasons behind these trends remain complex and multifaceted, prevention and early detection are important. While it’s unrealistic to think we can prevent all cancers through lifestyle, how we live matters. Maintaining a healthy body weight, staying physically active, not smoking, and limiting alcohol and ultra-processed foods are steps everyone can take to lower their risk.


Zhao J, Xu L, Sun J, et al. Global trends in incidence, death, burden and risk factors of early-onset cancer from 1990 to 2019. BMJ Oncology. 2023;2(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjonc-2023-000049.

  • Rumgay H, Shield KD, Charvat H, et al. Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption: a population-based study. Lancet Oncology. 2021;22(8):1071-1080. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/s1470-2045(21)00279-5.
  • Most Americans Still Unaware that Alcohol Is a Cause of Cancer. American Institute for Cancer Research. Published February 16, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2023. https://www.aicr.org/news/most-americans-still-unaware-that-alcohol-is-a-cause-of-cancer/
  • Alcohol and Cancer. Published 2023. Accessed September 6, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm
  • ‌Kliemann N, Rauber F, Renata Bertazzi Levy, et al. Food processing and cancer risk in Europe: results from the prospective EPIC cohort study. The Lancet Planetary Health. 2023;7(3):e219-e232. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(23)00021-9
  • Fruit and Vegetable Consumption | Cancer Trends Progress Report. Cancer.gov. Published 2023. Accessed September 6, 2023. https://progressreport.cancer.gov/prevention/fruit_vegetable
  • Tips for Eating Healthier | Eating to Reduce Cancer Risk. Cancer.org. Published 2021. Accessed September 6, 2023. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/risk-prevention/diet-physical-activity/eat-healthy/add-fruits-and-veggies-to-your-diet.html‌

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