Why is Colon Cancer on the Rise in Young Adults?

Why is Colon Cancer on the Rise in Young Adults?

(Last Updated On: March 27, 2019)

colon cancer

What would it be like to be diagnosed with colon cancer in your 20s? You probably think of a colon cancer as a disease that strikes later in life, after the age of 50, when you’re thinking about things like menopause, not where you’re going for graduate school – but colon cancer is showing up more often in younger people, in those still in their 20s and 30s.

According to U.S. National Cancer Institute, the rate of colon cancer dropped in adults age 50 and over from 1975 to 2010, but the number of new cases increased in younger adults between the ages of 35 and 49. In fact, the incidence of colon cancer in younger adults rose 2% yearly during this time period while the rate dropped 1% yearly in older adults. What’s more concerning is the rate is predicted to rise even further in young adults over the next few decades.

Years ago, it was uncommon for colon cancer to strike people in their 30s without a family history of the disease. Now, adults in their 30s and even 20s are developing it at a disturbing rate, even among those who have no family history of the disease. U.S. National Cancer Institute data predicts colon cancer will grow by a whopping 38% to 90% in adults ages 20 to 34. Since people with early colon cancer have few symptoms, the cancer is often diagnosed at a stage when it’s harder to cure.

Why is this concerning? Unless you have genetic risk factors for colon cancer, the recommendation is to get an initial screening colonoscopy at age 50. Therefore few young adults are getting screened unless they get a colonoscopy for another reason and a tumor is incidentally found.

Why Are Colon Cancer Rates on the Rise in Young Adults?

Scientists admit they don’t have an answer as to why more young adults are being diagnosed with colon cancer. The decline in colon cancer rates among men and women over 50 is encouraging, and is best explained by aggressive screening, but how can you account for the growing incidence in young adults? Since colon cancer is a cancer involving the intestinal tract, one place to look for an explanation is diet.

Some studies show that a diet rich in plant-based, fiber-rich foods and one lower in red meat, particularly processed meat, is associated with a lower risk for colon cancer. Unfortunately, a 2009 study found only 1 in 10 adolescents and adults get the recommended amount of vegetables and fruits daily. The number one “vegetable” enjoyed by teens and young adults? Potatoes. Most teens and young adults eat few if any dark green or orange vegetables. Vegetable consumption has also declined in the past 40 years, thanks to the rise of fast food and fewer people sitting down to a home-cooked meal. Another possible contributor to higher rates of colon cancer among young people is lack of exercise. The good news – being physically active is linked with lower colon cancer risk. The bad news? Almost half of all adolescents and young adults aren’t active on a routine basis.

Other Risk Factors

Research shows people with metabolic syndrome and type 2-diabetes are at higher risk for colon cancer, possibly due to a higher insulin level. One theory is that elevated insulin levels increase IGF-1, which can act as a growth factor in tissues like the colon. Metabolic syndrome is also strongly linked with obesity, another risk for colon cancer. Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome was once a problem mainly of older adults, but these days, it’s not uncommon for kids and teens to have insulin resistance, thanks to processed foods and too little physical activity. Sounds like a good set-up for almost ANY type of cancer, doesn’t it?

Experts believe only 5 to 10% of cancers are attributable to genetic factors, meaning 90 to 95% are related to lifestyle choices and environmental exposure. Estimates are that between 30 and 35% of cancers can be blamed on lack of exercise. Regardless of your age, take the threat of colon cancer seriously by getting screened no later than age 50 and earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer. What can you do to lower your risk?

Lifestyle Changes to Lower Your Risk

.   Eat 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Avoid processed meat, and processed food in general, and limit the amount of red meat in your diet. Eat fatty fish twice a week. Some studies show long-chain omega-3s in fish oil are protective.

.   Exercise at least 30 minutes most days of the week. Vigorous exercise is better than leisurely exercise.

.   Spice up your meals. Studies suggest that the Indian spice turmeric causes colon cancer cells to self-destruct. Eat turmeric with black pepper to improve absorption. Tumeric is not well-absorbed through the gut, but consuming it with black pepper helps. A recent study in animals also showed cinnamon has anti-cancer activity against colon cancer cells.

.   Maintain a healthy body weight. That’s where diet and exercise come in!

.   Don’t smoke or use excessive alcohol.

.   Know your family history. If you have a family history of colon cancer, talk to your doctor about screening before age 50. Most colon cancers arise from pre-cancerous polyps. If you remove the polyps before they become malignant, you can prevent colon cancer.

The Bottom Line

Colon cancer is a serious disease, but if you catch it early, preferably as a pre-malignant polyp, you’ll fare much better. Just as importantly, make the lifestyle changes above to lower your risk for getting it in the first place



Health Day. “Colon Cancer on the Rise for U.S. Adults Under 50” November 5, 2014.

JAMA Surg. 2015;150(1):17-22. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2014.1756.

Medscape J Med. 2009; 11(1): 26. Published online 2009 Jan 26.

CDC. Physical Activity and Health. “Adolescents and Young Adults”

JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (1992) 84 (19): 1491-1500. doi: 10.1093/jnci/84.19.1491.

Cancer Prev Res April 2011 4; 502.

Am J Clin Nutr September 2007 vol. 86 no. 3 836S-842S.

World J Gastroenterol. 2009 Nov 7; 15(41): 5141-5148.Published online 2009 Nov 7. doi:  10.3748/wjg.15.5141.

Cancer Research UK. “Can Turmeric Prevent or Treat Cancer?”

MD Magazine. “A Dash of Spicy Cinnamon to Prevent Colorectal Cancer?”

American Cancer Society. “What are the Risk factors for Colorectal Cancer?


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