February 29, 2024

The rate at which people under the age of 50 are dying from bowel cancer in the UK is on track to rise by a third this year, according to projections which experts say are alarming and stem from a rise in obesity, poor diets and physical inactivity .

Death rates among those aged 25 to 49 are predicted to increase by 39% among women and 26% among men in 2024, compared with the average between 2015 and 2019, the last five-year period for which data was studied. The findings were published in the journal Annals of Oncology.

The research also predicts that death rates for bowel cancer will rise in women of all ages in the UK, another worrying trend that does not appear to be following the declining pattern of most other cancers.

Experts said the projections point to an urgent need to encourage adults to adopt healthier lifestyles earlier in life. The findings also called for people to undergo screening earlier.

According to more than half of bowel cancer cases in the UK (54%) are preventable Cancer Research UK. More than a quarter of cases (28%) are caused by eating too little fibre, 13% are caused by eating processed meat, 11% are caused by obesity, 6% are caused by drinking alcohol and 5 % is caused by too little physical activity.

Bar chart: UK cancer rates in under-50s

Meanwhile, there is global concern about increasing numbers of younger adults being diagnosed with cancer. The number of under-50s worldwide who are diagnosed with the disease has increased by almost 80% in three decades.

The latest research looked at the EU’s five most populous countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain – as well as the UK, and predicted what cancer death rates would be in 2024 compared to average figures for the period between 2015 and 2019.

Overall, mortality rates for all cancers taken together are predicted to decline. However, the study raised concerns about younger people and bowel cancer death rates. Apart from France, bowel cancer death rates among people aged 25 to 49 are predicted to rise in 2024 in the other countries.

Death rates in Italy are predicted to increase by 2.6% among women and 1.5% among men. In Poland and Spain the increase among men was 5.9% and 5.5% respectively, while in Germany the rate among women is predicted to increase by 7.2%. However, the UK showed much larger jumps of 39% among women and 26% among men.

The UK is also the only country of the six where bowel cancer death rates are expected to rise in women of all ages, albeit only slightly (1.4%).

Study leader Prof Carlo La Vecchia, a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Milan, said: “Key factors contributing to the rise in bowel cancer rates among young people include overweight, obesity and related health conditions, such as high blood sugar levels and diabetes Additional reasons are increases in heavier alcohol use over time in central and northern Europe and the UK, and reductions in physical activity.

“Alcohol consumption is linked to early onset bowel cancer, and countries where there has been a reduction in alcohol consumption, such as France and Italy, have not experienced such marked increases in death rates from this cancer.

“Early-onset bowel cancer tends to be more aggressive, with lower survival rates, compared to bowel cancer diagnosed in older people.”

La Vecchia added: “National governments should consider strengthening policies to encourage increased physical activity, a reduction in the number of people who are overweight or obese, and a reduction in alcohol consumption.

“In terms of prevention, governments should consider expanding bowel cancer screening to younger ages, from age 45.

“Screening programs vary across Europe, but an increase in the incidence of bowel cancer among young people in the US has led the US Preventive Services Task Force to recommend lowering the age at which screening begins to 45 years.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The independent UK National Screening Committee – made up of clinical experts – considers scientific evidence and makes a decision on age cohorts to ensure that a program does more good than harm.”

In England, people aged 60 to 74 are invited for bowel cancer screening and the program is extended to everyone aged 50 to 59. In Scotland and Wales, screening is offered from the age of 50 and 55 respectively.

The Northern Ireland bowel cancer screening program offers screening every two years to people aged 60 to 74 who are registered with a GP.

Dr Panagiota Mitrou, the director of research, policy and innovation at World Cancer Research Fund International, said: “It is worrying to see the high predicted increases in bowel cancer death rates, particularly in younger people in the UK.”

The findings were “not entirely surprising”, she added, as young people are exposed to risk factors such as obesity early in life. Promoting healthy habits such as a balanced diet, a healthy weight from early in life and avoiding alcohol was essential, Mitrou added.

Sophia Lowes, from Cancer Research UK, said: “These findings show a worrying rise in predicted bowel cancer deaths in people aged 25 to 49. However, it is important to remember that the overall number of people who develop the disease is under 50 die, still reasonable is small. Around 5% of UK bowel cancer deaths are in people aged 25 to 49, with most people dying from the disease in the UK being older.”

If people notice any changes that weren’t normal for them, regardless of their age, they shouldn’t ignore them and talk to their doctor, Lowes said. “In most cases it won’t be cancer, but if it is, catching it early can make a real difference.”

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